Homeless people who have been living in the shared parking lot of two charitable agencies that work hand-in-hand to fight homelessness will be evicted from the lot as of Sept. 2.
Property owner Share, which has shared its building and parking lot on Andresen Road with the Council for the Homeless since last year, has told a group of about a half-dozen regular parking lot residents that they’ll have to go. An official said the agency is working to find them placements in time — but there are no guarantees.
“We will do everything we can to move them into housing as quickly as possible,” said Share program manager Amy Reynolds. “Sadly, it can be really difficult.”
The people in the parking lot are furious and say they doubt that the people who work inside the building, and pass them by every day as they go in and out, really care about them at all. “Paper pushers” is what homeless veteran James Wilcoxen Jr. called them.
“Where are we going to park? We have nowhere to go,” said Amanda Snapp. “This place is safe. Where can we go?”
Staff members at Share and the Council for the Homeless agree that the situation is tragic — and an illustration of the ongoing inadequacy of local resources for homeless people.
“We have a living reminder of that right here with us,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds said police who came out in response to a neighbor’s complaint last week “reminded us” that Vancouver has a no-camping ordinance. But the ordinance is specific in what it applies to: parks, streets and other public property. While approximately half of Share’s income comes from government grants — $3.2 million in 2012, according to the financial statement posted on Share’s website — it’s still considered a private nonprofit agency, Reynolds said.
“If the parking lot is private property, then the Unlawful Camping ordinance would not apply,” said Vancouver Prosecutor Kevin McClure. But it could still be a nuisance code violation, McClure said, if there is open storage of property or other problems that neighbors complain about.
That’s the real point, Reynolds said in an email: “We believe in being good neighbors. As an organization, we do not advocate for nor are we trying to create a `tent city.’ We believe in permanent housing as a reasonable and possible solution.”
New system, tight market
Share is the biggest and best-known of several local providers of programs for the homeless; it operates emergency shelters, subsidy programs and much more. Last year, Share opened a new headquarters, the Fromhold Service Center, on Andresen Road, and the Council for the Homeless launched its Housing Solutions Center in the same building.
The Housing Solutions Center functions as a centralized gateway to all the agencies, including Share, that provide homeless services, with its staff conducting assessments of people who come looking for help to determine what assistance programs they might qualify for — and what’s actually available at any given time.
But there’s a wide gap between qualifying for some program and getting a real roof over your head, officials say, and too often the news for folks like these parking lot residents is not just bad but maddening. Amanda Snapp said she was offered a bed for a single person — but she’s married and refuses to be separated from her husband, Brandon, who was recently released from prison. The two of them, who have been here on and off since April, fumed to The Columbian that bureaucrats are trying to break up their marriage.
Amanda said she’d rather see a single bed go to Wilcoxen, a veteran who’s trying to gain custody of his children and who has been living in his truck in the parking lot since March 6.
But what Wilcoxen has heard is: “I’m overqualified, I’m underqualified. To get assistance, there’s a list. It’s forever.” He added that being homeless means being tempted “to do things you don’t want to do. You want to stay legal on all matters.”
These folks appear to have concluded that Share wants to help them while the Council is preventing it. Reynolds said that’s a misunderstanding.
“We have a great relationship with the Council, and we have spent the past year working out any kinks in the system. The bottleneck is really the apartment vacancy rate,” she said.
The Columbian has reported several times recently that the local rental market is very tight — the vacancy rate hovers around 3 percent — and even when a homeless household qualifies for a subsidy, private landlords are often predisposed to rent to somebody else. They certainly tend to screen out people with felony convictions and bad credit. That’s their prerogative, Reynolds said.
It’s also true, Reynolds said, that program requirements sometimes do result in couples being housed separately.
“For opposite-sex couples, trying to find accommodations in the shelter system is hard. We have chosen to prioritize single women and families with children. It has meant couples without kids often don’t have a place to go together.”
All of which means that the Council and its Housing Solutions Center, acting as gatekeeper, often plays bad cop.
“We are the ones who manage the wait list,” former HSC director Michael Boldt said earlier this summer. “We have become the face of the system.”
The Housing Solutions Center received 13,428 hotline calls in its first year of business; it performed assessments of 1,292 households or individuals; and it determined that 498 of those households qualified for local housing programs. But even with vouchers in hand, only 56 percent of those households found a landlord willing to rent to them.
Reynolds said Share outreach workers visit the group regularly — offering gift cards, bus passes and more — and are trying to come up with real solutions.
Amanda Snapp said cleanliness is crucial to her, and she manages to take showers by standing in the building dumpster and letting her husband pour water over her. She said she’s going to school full time at Portland Community College. She’s less worried about herself, she said, than a 70-year-old man who keeps to himself elsewhere in the parking lot.
He wouldn’t share his name, but said he lived in an apartment for 26 years — until the rent rose on Aug. 1 and he’d been laid off from a car wash job.
“They say they can’t help me,” he said.
The whole situation “makes me sick to my stomach,” said bus driver Kerry Erving, who first noticed these folks while walking over to C-Tran’s nearby base. She said she found some C-Tran and union colleagues who first came over to attempt some car repairs by hand, and then set up an appointment with a nearby garage that did the job for free. Her frustration grew, and she eventually called The Columbian to ask why these people couldn’t get help.
“I talk to these people. I befriended these people. I don’t see how they can’t get any help,” she said. “How embarrassing this is. How do we treat our homeless people, our senior citizens, our veterans?”