VHA sets meetings on apartments for homeless

Critic: Too many social services would be in west Vancouver

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter


photoClick to enlarge.

The Vancouver Housing Authority has scheduled a series of public discussions about its proposal to bring a 30-unit apartment building for chronically homeless people to downtown Vancouver.

One meeting is intended for "local neighbors" of the proposed site, and another is meant to be citywide. Additionally, there will be three brief presentations to local neighborhood associations.

Lincoln Place

• What: A proposed 30-unit public housing building for chronically homeless people.

• Where: Planned for land across the street from Share House on West 13th Street.

• Why: Poverty experts have adopted “housing first” as a way to assist the most difficult-to-help homeless people while saving society money.

• Why not: Too many services for the poor are already concentrated downtown.

All of which is too little, too late for Ceci Ryan Smith, the former chairwoman of the Vancouver Housing Authority board of directors. Smith, who stepped down last year after a decade on the board, said she has been asking the VHA for months to start a dialogue with the community about this proposal. She said she has received little but silence in return.

"This project has just been a closed door," she said. "It makes me very sad."

Roy Johnson, the executive director of VHA, said Monday that plans simply weren't ready until now. The plans call for a three-story, 10,000-square-foot building with 30 small studio apartments including kitchenettes and private bathrooms, at an anticipated price of $4.3 million. Most of that money would be raised by selling state-authorized low-income housing tax credits to private investors.

Public meetings

• Arnada Neighborhood Association, 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 9 in the VHA community room, 2500 Main St. (short presentation).

• “Local neighborhood,” 6 p.m. Jan. 16 in the VHA community room, 2500 Main St. (full meeting).

• Vancouver Downtown Association, 7:45 a.m. Jan. 17 at the Hilton Vancouver Washington, 415 W. Sixth St. (short presentation).

• Citywide meeting on Lincoln Place, 6 p.m. Jan. 31, St. Joseph Church, 6600 Highland Drive (full meeting).

• Hough Neighborhood Association, 7 p.m. Feb. 18, Hough Elementary School (short presentation).

"It just wasn't complete. This has followed a pretty typical development schedule for us," Johnson said. With detailed plans ready, he said, VHA did "make early contact" with local neighborhood associations, but because of the holidays they were not able to schedule VHA's visits until now.

That puts the VHA's first real development deadline — an application to the state for the tax credits, due Jan. 17 — smack in the middle of the meeting schedule. Johnson denied Smith's suspicion, shared numerous times with The Columbian, that the VHA is trying to avoid publicity about a proposal that's sure to be controversial.

Johnson said The Columbian's November coverage of the matter — stories that ran right before and right after the VHA board approved moving ahead with the proposal — generated little public response.

"Housing first"

Lincoln Place is proposed for mostly vacant property that's directly across West 13th Street from men's shelter Share House.

The building would operate according to a model called "housing first." That means providing homeless people who still haven't beaten their demons — such as addiction and mental illness — a place to live regardless. "Housing first" holds that a stable place to live is the most basic building block of a stable life, and that intensive services can help the toughest-to-help people — once they've got a roof over their heads.

To learn more

Council for the Homeless information sheet on Lincoln Place.

Rent at the building would be heavily subsidized, and held down to 30 percent of each resident's income, Johnson said; many residents might have nothing but government benefits, or no income at all. Residents would be selected via a vulnerability assessment that's aimed at nothing less than saving the lives of people who are at most risk of dying if they're just left on the streets.

The Lincoln Place proposal, and the "housing first" philosophy, have been endorsed by Andy Silver, the executive director of the Council for the Homeless, which posted an information sheet on its website.

"It's called 'low-barrier' housing," Silver has said, and it's aimed at "the small percentage of homeless who … are homeless for years and years. They are the hardest-to-reach people. Unfortunately, they're also the most visible. Historically, other programs and services haven't worked for them."

Where "housing first" has been tried, its results are dramatic, Silver said. For example, 80 percent to 90 percent of the homeless people housed by "housing first" programs tend to keep living where they've been placed, he said. Plus, he said, nearly half also make progress in beating their other troubles once they're got someplace to call their own.

"It's been shown that just living in a household is therapeutic. You see all sorts of improvements just by the fact that they are living in safe housing," he said.

Overall, supporters have pointed out, one of the main advantages of "housing first" is that it saves society money by helping chronically homeless avoid expensive services they often end up using — such as shelter space, emergency room visits, police calls and incarceration at the county jail.

According to a 2012 study published by the American Journal of Public Health, formerly homeless alcoholics cut their heavy drinking and their daily drinking dramatically after they were housed in a Seattle "housing first" building. An earlier study by University of Washington researchers found the program was saving taxpayers more than $4 million a year.

Right there?

What Silver and Johnson like about the West 13th street site is exactly what Smith doesn't like about it: concentration of services. Already, within a few blocks, there's men's shelter and daytime soup kitchen Share House, family shelter Open House Ministries, a spillover winter-weather shelter, several food pantries, a transitional housing development (Pinewood Terrace), subsidized low-income apartments (Esther Short Commons) and the offices of the state Department of Social and Health Services.

Johnson said the project would qualify for the low-income tax credits based partly on its location in this downtown, low-income census tract. "We have to do it here or probably not do this project," he has said.

Lincoln Place is best situated alongside Share House, Johnson has said, because the two can share staff and resources. People can live in the building and cook for themselves in their own kitchenettes or go right across the street to Share for hot meals and for other services, he said.

Residents will also be provided in-house case management at Lincoln Place as well as referrals and help with transportation to off-site services, Johnson said. According to the information sheet about Lincoln Place, a wide variety of services will be "available" both on- and off-site.

But there's no requirement that Lincoln Place residents actually accept or go get those services, he said. The bottom line with "housing first" is that residents get stable housing regardless of their attempts to better their lives.

Smith, a lifelong neighbor of nearby Hough Elementary School, believes that permanently housing 30 hardcore homeless people — who are likely not clean and sober — in west Vancouver will inevitably mean more undesirables wandering around the area. It "is not a huge area, but one that is highly impacted by social services and VHA subsidized housing. We simply cannot bear the weight of any more social service concentration," she said.

Smith is wondering whether the city's Human Service Siting Ordinance, which aims for an equitable spread of human services in order to minimize impact to any one area, would apply here. Johnson said he believes it doesn't because Lincoln Place would be considered permanent housing, not a human service facility.

Since no application has been made to the city of Vancouver, the city hasn't weighed in about the approval process it would use and whether the siting ordinance would be part of that.

At its November meeting, the VHA board voted to explore adding a day-use area to Lincoln Place's design. That area would be used to deliver services on-site, and would sufficiently change the nature of the building to "absolutely trigger the siting ordinance," Johnson said.

Right now the day-use facility appears prohibitively expensive to operate, Johnson said.