Where can the homeless go?

More housing, services in downtown Vancouver resisted, but it's where much of the poverty already exists

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

Published:

 

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Open House buys neighboring property for resource center

Wayne Garlington, the executive director of Open House Ministries, dreamed for years about razing and replacing the big rental house just north of his operation. Open House recently took the first step -- paying approximately $425,000 for the old house, which Garlington said is "in tough shape."

Garlington brandishes a flier showing the final step: A two-story Family Resource Center in that spot, including office space for staff, community space for neighborhood meetings and a gymnasium for public use. It would offer a wide variety of services brought in by outside providers, and the gymnasium could double as spillover emergency shelter when winter weather gets nasty and regular shelters are full, Garlington said.

All of which would free offices in the present Open House building to return to use as living space. So the new building could lead to an increase in the sheltered population of the old building, which now houses up to 93 individuals, Garlington said.

Garlington admitted that not a lot is concrete about the plan -- including size, cost and how long it might take to realize.

In other words, purchasing the property was a leap of faith. No permit application has been made, and Garlington said he's no expert in local politics or land-use planning -- but informal discussions with elected city officials and staff have led him to believe that Open House's plan fits the city's siting restrictions because it's only "extending services we're already doing," not offering anything new.

He pointed out that Open House expanded its offerings about 10 years ago, adding retail shops that put tenants to work selling used bikes, used furniture and fresh coffee.

"I think we are helping people," he said. "If it creates more poverty, we shouldn't be doing it. If it's not bettering downtown, we shouldn't be doing it.

"I really believe this is good for Vancouver."

-- Scott Hewitt

Homeless man prefers Sifton to downtown Vancouver

Months after his makeshift home was disposed of by neighbors and sheriff's deputies, Tim Peterson still lives somewhere in Sifton.

The 40-year-old homeless man, a felon and occasional construction worker, has lots to say about his situation, his mistreatment by authorities and the unreported "real" reasons why the homeless camp he used to oversee was eliminated from private property, where he insists he had tacit approval to stay. The Clark County Sheriff's Office knew about the site and didn't interfere, he said, until reports of thefts and squabbles between residents got exaggerated.

The camp was wiped off the map on Feb. 22. On April 2, Peterson sipped breakfast coffee at the McDonald's restaurant on Gehr Road and said, "I'm still here."

He still sleeps outside in the area. He goes by a friend's house to shower. His fiancee, who is pregnant, lives at her mom's house nearby.

Homeless or not, Peterson said, Sifton remains his home -- and the home of many homeless people he knows. "Within six blocks of this McDonald's, I know there are 15 people" living outdoors, he said. It's their "permanent residence."

In addition to the domestic violence conviction that effectively bars him from homeless shelters, jobs and many other opportunities in life, there's another reason why Peterson prefers to stay out of downtown Vancouver: it's where "all the lowlife druggies" go to get their basic needs met, he said.

"I honestly feel it's enabling them," he said of downtown-based free food and help for homeless folks. He has similar feelings about the proposal for Lincoln Place, a 30-unit apartment building for homeless people.

Matt Hannan, the senior pastor at New Heights Church in Hazel Dell, helps volunteers to distribute food some Sundays at Leverich Park, a frequent homeless hideaway. The folks he meets there stay away from shelters for a variety of reasons, Hannan said -- from their own mental demons to a history of problems with agencies.

"Our outreach is to get to know these guys, to spend time hearing them out, and then maybe to say, 'Hey, try one night in the shelter,' " Hannan said.

"You don't transform people without listening. The first act of love is listening."

-- Scott Hewitt

Open House buys neighboring property for resource center

Wayne Garlington, the executive director of Open House Ministries, dreamed for years about razing and replacing the big rental house just north of his operation. Open House recently took the first step — paying approximately $425,000 for the old house, which Garlington said is “in tough shape.”

Garlington brandishes a flier showing the final step: A two-story Family Resource Center in that spot, including office space for staff, community space for neighborhood meetings and a gymnasium for public use. It would offer a wide variety of services brought in by outside providers, and the gymnasium could double as spillover emergency shelter when winter weather gets nasty and regular shelters are full, Garlington said.

All of which would free offices in the present Open House building to return to use as living space. So the new building could lead to an increase in the sheltered population of the old building, which now houses up to 93 individuals, Garlington said.

Garlington admitted that not a lot is concrete about the plan — including size, cost and how long it might take to realize.

In other words, purchasing the property was a leap of faith. No permit application has been made, and Garlington said he’s no expert in local politics or land-use planning — but informal discussions with elected city officials and staff have led him to believe that Open House’s plan fits the city’s siting restrictions because it’s only “extending services we’re already doing,” not offering anything new.

He pointed out that Open House expanded its offerings about 10 years ago, adding retail shops that put tenants to work selling used bikes, used furniture and fresh coffee.

“I think we are helping people,” he said. “If it creates more poverty, we shouldn’t be doing it. If it’s not bettering downtown, we shouldn’t be doing it.

“I really believe this is good for Vancouver.”

— Scott Hewitt

Homeless man prefers Sifton to downtown Vancouver

Months after his makeshift home was disposed of by neighbors and sheriff’s deputies, Tim Peterson still lives somewhere in Sifton.

The 40-year-old homeless man, a felon and occasional construction worker, has lots to say about his situation, his mistreatment by authorities and the unreported “real” reasons why the homeless camp he used to oversee was eliminated from private property, where he insists he had tacit approval to stay. The Clark County Sheriff’s Office knew about the site and didn’t interfere, he said, until reports of thefts and squabbles between residents got exaggerated.

The camp was wiped off the map on Feb. 22. On April 2, Peterson sipped breakfast coffee at the McDonald’s restaurant on Gehr Road and said, “I’m still here.”

He still sleeps outside in the area. He goes by a friend’s house to shower. His fiancee, who is pregnant, lives at her mom’s house nearby.

Homeless or not, Peterson said, Sifton remains his home — and the home of many homeless people he knows. “Within six blocks of this McDonald’s, I know there are 15 people” living outdoors, he said. It’s their “permanent residence.”

In addition to the domestic violence conviction that effectively bars him from homeless shelters, jobs and many other opportunities in life, there’s another reason why Peterson prefers to stay out of downtown Vancouver: it’s where “all the lowlife druggies” go to get their basic needs met, he said.

“I honestly feel it’s enabling them,” he said of downtown-based free food and help for homeless folks. He has similar feelings about the proposal for Lincoln Place, a 30-unit apartment building for homeless people.

Matt Hannan, the senior pastor at New Heights Church in Hazel Dell, helps volunteers to distribute food some Sundays at Leverich Park, a frequent homeless hideaway. The folks he meets there stay away from shelters for a variety of reasons, Hannan said — from their own mental demons to a history of problems with agencies.

“Our outreach is to get to know these guys, to spend time hearing them out, and then maybe to say, ‘Hey, try one night in the shelter,’ ” Hannan said.

“You don’t transform people without listening. The first act of love is listening.”

— Scott Hewitt

At 8:30 a.m. on a typical Wednesday in April, more than one dozen bedraggled folks are using a garage, driveway and sidewalk on King Street as a staging area after emerging from homeless shelters, downscale rentals and hidden nests around railroad tracks and the underbelly of the Mill Plain Extension bridge. From here, they begin hauling backpacks, shopping carts and plastic bags east through the morning.

At day’s end, the same people head west again, toward a free hot meal and another uneasy night someplace — sheltered or unsheltered, indoors or out.

There are approximately 700 homeless people in Clark County and hundreds more at risk, according to the most recent annual “homeless census” taken by the Council for the Homeless. But the local agency that has the most intimate experience serving and sheltering the homeless is particularly worried about 10 percent of them.

Share Vancouver has identified approximately 70 chronically homeless local individuals as especially vulnerable to crime, injury, disease and death.

The Vancouver Housing Authority has proposed a 30-unit apartment building called Lincoln Place, directly across the street from Share House on West 13th Street; in late April, the Washington Housing Finance Commission approved letting VHA sell low-income tax credits to underwrite much of the estimated $4.7 million cost.

Lincoln Place will be what’s called a “wet” building. The residents will not have to live clean and sober lives. They’ll just get a roof over their heads — and offers of help with their problems.

Proponents insist that this plan makes excellent sense: it’ll clean up downtown streets and at least point the desperately downtrodden in the direction of services and sobriety.

“People who have been homeless for a long time in the downtown area will be targeted,” says a VHA fact sheet.

Opponents argue that the plan makes no sense: it’ll attract more poverty and blight to a downtown that needs redevelopment of a different sort. People inclined to invest in and visit a waterfront full of cheery green spaces and upscale restaurants aren’t going to be any happier with a nearby building for homeless addicts than they will with incoming shipments of crude oil.

“The whole point of this waterfront project is walkability downtown,” said Eileen Cowen, co-chairwoman of the Hough Neighborhood Association. “If people don’t feel safe walking down there from the neighborhoods, because of a troubled area they have to walk through, it’s going to have an impact.”

Furthermore, Lincoln Place is only one of several proposals to bring new facilities for the needy to the west side. Fish of Vancouver, a busy weekday food pantry that’s spilling out of the church site where it’s operated for years, is raising funds to buy its own building on Harney Street. Open House Ministries recently bought a dilapidated apartment building that it wants to raze and replace with a new community resource center. One Life, another food pantry, recently moved from east of Clark College into a different church near Hough Elementary School.

Preceding all of this are shelters Share House and Open House, with a combined homeless population of around 130; some of the visibly cheapest rental properties in town; and the other downtown infrastructure that arguably attracts a disproportionate number of needy people: courthouse, jail, bail bondsmen and offices of the state Department of Social and Health Services. Not to mention the free public library and the welcoming benches and covered, rain-protected stage in Esther Short Park.

Put all that together and it seems to add up to an unmistakably impoverished edge of Vancouver. One well-qualified critic of the VHA plan — a former chairwoman of the VHA board of commissioners and a longtime Hough neighborhood resident — insists that enough on the west side is already far more than enough.

Ceci Ryan Smith has been waging a busy one-woman campaign to protest the Lincoln Place project and to point out that poverty is more spread out than some seem to realize. Why can’t the building go someplace entirely different, she wonders? And, why can’t the city council declare a moratorium and take a deeper look at economic redevelopment versus human services in the downtown core?

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,” Ryan Smith said. “Anyone who walks around 12th and Lincoln can easily observe the ghetto-like concentration of dysfunctional people: Share House, Open House Ministries, active drug dealers, private housing for sex offenders.

“Are the social service providers creating a neighborhood for their clients? Or are they addressing specific needs of already established neighborhoods?”

Modern downtown

Designers of the plan respond that federal policies favoring development in low-income census tracts make Lincoln Place economically viable only on the lower west side. “We get an extra 30 percent credit — about $1 million,” said VHA Executive Director Roy Johnson.

Furthermore, proponents say, placing the building directly across the street from Share House on 13th Street will help clean up the neighborhood, not drag it farther down. The poverty is already here, they say, and serving it means helping to solve it.

“We support partners who are trying to make a significant impact and who will do the heavy lifting,” said Lee Rafferty, executive director of Vancouver’s Downtown Association. While the VDA has not taken an official stand, Rafferty said she heard “no pushback” from her board after Johnson personally pitched it to them.

Does Lincoln Place represent any disincentive to invest in, live at or visit the remade waterfront? “I don’t think it’s going to matter,” Rafferty said.

“In any modern downtown setting, different sorts of people and people who are less pleasant to be around are part of the experience,” she said. “Homeless are going to be in the area. That’s why I like the setting right across from Share. I think it’s good to take 30 chronically homeless individuals and give them a home. Thirty residents doesn’t sound like ‘Animal House’ to me.”

Homeless shelters, subsidized housing and social services are at least somewhat dispersed across the city of Vancouver. That’s partially due to the city’s 1991 Human Service Siting ordinance, which was designed for exactly that purpose — to ease and spread out downtown’s burden. It’s also due to the simple fact that downtown real estate is generally more expensive than real estate elsewhere.

Share and the Council for the Homeless recently moved administrative and hotline offices to a remodeled bowling alley on Andresen Road in central Vancouver — enjoying more space but definitely making it harder for the worst-off clients to reach them.

“We built this and they didn’t come,” Executive Director Diane McWithey said while sitting five miles from downtown in Share’s new Fromhold Service Center.

Mental health clinic The Children’s Center, which serves low-income families, is getting ready to leave downtown for a new east-side building. The scattered sites of DSHS plan to consolidate soon at Tower Mall in central Vancouver. The Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul, charities that provide food, cash assistance, case management and more, both left downtown years ago, with leaders complaining about rising rents and the siting ordinance. Duane Sich, the recently retired director of homeless day center Friends of the Carpenter, long wanted to expand his operation to a neighboring warehouse building and create a “campus of services” near downtown — but expenses and the city’s siting ordinance effectively blocked that, he has said.

Meanwhile, another Lincoln Place-style building, intended for veterans and called Freedom’s Path, has been proposed on the Veterans Administration campus east of I-5 on Fourth Plain. That’s a plan by a Florida-based private developer, not VHA.

Here for housing?

All in all, officials with Share and VHA say, service providers have done due diligence in following the ordinance — and following poverty across the city with shelters, services and subsidized housing. The fact remains that the majority of homeless people live in downtown and think of it as their neighborhood.

“Many communities across the country have tried to reduce downtown homelessness by moving shelters and services outside of the downtown core,” says the VHA fact sheet on Lincoln Place. “We are not aware of any jurisdiction in the United States where this has worked. In our community, we tried to move outreach services away from downtown and people stayed downtown and didn’t access the services.”

“It’s a sense of community, just like anybody else’s,” said Share program director Amy Reynolds. “That’s where they’ve been, that’s where they want to stay.”

Ryan Smith doesn’t buy it; that sense of community, such as it is, has been built by packing the area with housing and services. Downtown food pantries in church basements and housing that leverages services are exploiting “loopholes” in the siting ordinance, she insists, while the city looks the other way.

The Hough Neighborhood Association is deeply divided about Lincoln Place, co-chairs Eileen Cowen and Sacha Amundson both said. Making sure the building is adequately staffed and carefully managed will make all the difference, Amundson said.

“I completely support Lincoln Place but I understand why people are hesitant,” Cowen said. “If you live on Lincoln or Kaufman, there are already so many problems.”

Those people hanging around King Street every morning were drawn “not by their choice, but by the choices society has made for them,” Ryan Smith said. “They are not here because they are invested in the school or the neighborhood. They are here because of housing.”