WENATCHEE — Dave Kleinfeldt is painfully aware that the people coming to his downtown homeless center are a sharp contrast to the customers visiting the surrounding specialty shops and restaurants.
Most of his clientele are homeless or living in extreme poverty. Some are mentally ill, and many are recovering drug and alcohol addicts. All are in need of something that he hopes his center can provide: clothing, a shower, a bit of food, a place to get out of the heat or cold, help finding a job, companionship.
But what he wants most is to provide a place for them to fit in and have a sense of belonging. And apparently the downtown storefront at 30 N. Wenatchee Ave. is not that place.
“I know our neighbors don’t want us here,” he said. “We’re only here to help people. So it hurts to know that we’re hurting people.”
Business owners have complained to police, city officials and the Wenatchee Downtown Association about what they say are an increasing number of conflicts with people visiting PowerHouse Ministry Center since the beginning of the year.
Business owners have said more rough-looking people are loitering downtown, wandering into businesses or using their rest rooms, smoking near doorways, getting into arguments and fights or ranting at people, stealing from businesses, exposing themselves to the public, urinating and defecating on the streets, and sleeping on sidewalks, in alleys or in cars. The problems have been getting worse since the beginning of the year, they say.
Police statistics seem to back that up. In all of 2012, police responded to five calls that were directly related to the homeless center, and another four calls that were likely related, said Police Chief Tom Robbins.
In the first five months of this year, police responded to 28 calls in the area directly around the center, he said.
Kleinfeldt said he can’t refute the complaints. The increase in complaints corresponds with the sharp increase in the number of people visiting the homeless center, which opened in November 2011. For much of last year, it averaged just a handful of people a day, he said. This year, those numbers have jumped to sometimes 100 people a day.
Kleinfeldt attributes the increase to a mixture of new services and word spreading among the homeless and needy about the center.
The center is now a distributor of free diapers from Serve Wenatchee Valley, a nonprofit which brings area churches together to help the needy, and now allows people to wash clothes for free in its laundry room. Upstairs, people can pick through a small supply of donated clothes. They can also get canned food. The center offers free internet on one public computer, and often helps people look for jobs, social services, and housing assistance.
Two Alcoholics Anonymous groups hold meetings at the center, and the Center for Drug and Alcohol Treatment — a government organization that provides treatment for addicts — allows people in its in-patient treatment programs to attend church services there.
“We relate well to people who are in recovery,” Kleinfeldt said.
It doesn’t offer overnight shelter or meals, which are provided by other homeless service providers in the city.
On Friday afternoon, a handful of people were at the center. One couple played cards at a table, while a few others were participating in a daily scripture reading. One woman was sprawled on a couch watching television, and a few people were looking at the clothing.
The center was neat and tidy, and the noise level was low.
“It’s a calm atmosphere in here most of the time,” said Kleinfeldt, who spent 14 years as pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wenatchee before partnering with his friend and fellow pastor, Sam Detwiler, to open the PowerHouse Ministry Center in November 2011. Detwiler is pastor of the Shalom Church, which meets in the center and supports the homeless center financially.
“We want things to be very much in control,” Kleinfeldt said. “There’s no weapons allowed. No cussing. No yelling.”
If people show up intoxicated or under the influence of drugs, they are asked to leave. If they routinely cause problems, they are not allowed back. He pointed out, though, that some of the people causing problems with surrounding businesses live downtown and aren’t associated with the center, a contention that Chief Robbins backed up.
The center is quick to shut down if there are problems. Last Thursday it closed several hours early after police arrested someone for an outstanding warrant. Kleinfeldt said he doesn’t want trouble-makers to think of the center as a refuge from the law.
Most of the center’s visitors are “decent people,” he said, though acknowledged that some were “a little bit scary to look at.” A lot are on some type of public assistance, either for disabilities or mental illness. They don’t work, and have nowhere else to go during the day.
“Normally people like this are pretty invisible,” he said. “They have always been down here, but just not as obvious. Homeless people are everywhere — they don’t just hang out in the south end of town.”
He added, “I think we serve a useful purpose in giving them someplace to go. We’re not just here for the homeless, but for anyone who is searching for a place to be themselves, a place to belong.”
Kleinfeldt said he is actively searching for a new location for the center. He’s found one possible location, but he said the rent is much higher than he’s paying now. The center, which is overseen by a board of directors, can’t afford to make expensive renovations to a building to meet city requirement.
In the meantime, he’s offering to help local businesses to reduce conflicts. He said he would be happy to help shepherd unwanted people out of stores, or ask smokers to move somewhere else.
“We want to be a help to people here and, unfortunately, we’re not helping everyone in this location,” he said. “I’m sorry for that. I wish we meshed better with the businesses around us.”