Faith community discusses homelessness solutions

Local effort aims to offer help beyond emergency shelter

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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There are approximately 2,000 homeless people in Clark County, according to the last annual count undertaken by the Council for the Homeless.

Are there 2,000 people of faith who'd be willing to buddy up with each and every one of them? To make sure they know that they're valued, cared for, even loved?

That question was asked by Rob Robinson at a brainstorming session about homelessness at Hudson's Bay High School Tuesday night. The event was billed as a "Community of Faith Summit" and it was attended by 130 churchgoers from all over Clark County. Many of them already volunteer for the Winter Hospitality Overflow effort that gets more homeless off the streets and onto church floors when the rainy season hits.

Kevin Hiebert, coordinator of the WHO, said members of 50 different churches volunteer for the WHO. There's a wealth of experience there, he said, but everybody is usually too occupied working the front lines of the problem to step back and discuss it.

"We do a lot of great work together but there isn't a lot of time for conversation," he said. "We get so busy doing the work, there isn't enough time to reflect." So Hiebert and the group decided to hold a forum where the faithful could think about their own role in ending homelessness.

As the 130 attendees organized themselves into small discussion groups, Hiebert and other professionals oriented them about coming developments in helping the homeless. Clark County's current telephone hotline for emergency housing -- it's called the Shelter Clearinghouse -- will be expanded into a Housing Solutions Center, said Council for the Homeless Executive Director Andy Silver.

The idea is to conduct extensive intake interviews that go beyond just finding shelter for the night and start to get at the whole range of problems a person is facing, and services they'll require to solve those problems.

Seeking permanence

"It's not just emergency services, it's permanent solutions," Silver said. The Housing Solutions Center should be up and running in February 2013, Silver said. It'll be housed in the new Share Fromhold Service Center on Andresen Road. There will a small staff, but Michael Boldt, the council's assessment center coordinator, said volunteers acting as "system navigators" who'll help guide homeless clients to the services and resources they need are more than welcome.

Other ideas advanced during the summit were a bus-pass program to help working homeless people get to their jobs, and so-called "wet" shelter that would be open even to homeless people who have not stopped drinking or using drugs. That's a daring idea, but Silver said it's working well in Seattle and other cities.

Boldt said that people who have stable housing even if they haven't overcome their demons yet are still less costly to society than people who require services from police, emergency rooms, mental health wards and jails.

The summit posed several big questions to attendees -- about "God's good dream" for the homeless in Clark County, for example -- and answers generated by many small group resembled one another. Why not put vacant properties to use? The Thunderbird on the River hotel that recently burned down on Hayden Island was huge and vacant for years, it was noted -- how many people could it have housed?

Other concrete suggestions were a north county homeless shelter and more mental health resources. But the idea that many liked best was establishing direct, personal relationships -- call it mentoring, advocacy and just "buddying up" -- with homeless people.

"No money is required," Robinson said. "And they'd hear what they don't usually hear: they're valuable."

SCOTT HEWITT: 360-735-4525; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits; scott.hewitt@columbian.com.