Press Talk: The homeless problem is complicated

By Lou Brancaccio, Columbian Editor

Published:

 

Lou Brancaccio is The Columbian's editor emeritus. His column of personal opinion appears the first Saturday of every month. Reach him at lounews1@gmail.com.

Just how wackadoodle is this city idea of moving its homeless problem to Hazel Dell?

Pretty dang wackadoodle, in my view.

OK, wackadoodle is too strong a term. But at the very least, it’s strange. And it will be a challenge.

If you’re paying attention, homelessness is very real and needs to be addressed. And it’s just not a problem for the homeless. It’s a problem for our communities and for society as a whole.

To back up a bit, Vancouver asked city voters in November for extra cash to help alleviate the city’s homeless problem. It passed. The money was targeted for certain things like rental assistance, other services and — yes — homeless shelters.

So far, so good, right?

But then something strange happened. A proposal was presented to the city council that went something like this:

“Hey, we found this pretty nice joint needs a little work that could help us with a temporary shelter for the homeless. And oh yeah it’s not in the city.”

Huh?

Vancouver has more homeless people than any other place in the county. That dynamic is true of most big cities. And Vancouver is already taking on much of the burden of alleviating the homeless problem. Still, if Vancouver moves some of its homeless outside the city limits, skeptical voices will be heard.

I remember in my first job in Florida doing an interview with my local police chief. I noticed homelessness increasing and asked him how his officers were handling any possible issues.

“Pretty simple, really. We put them in the back of a cruiser, take them to the city border and tell them, ‘The next city is that way.’”

Look, I don’t believe for a second that our city councilors are thinking that way. But you could see how some skeptics would voice this scenario:

City councilors are politicians. And politicians need to get re-elected. And creating a large homeless shelter in the city is not a good re-election strategy. But moving Vancouver’s homeless to Hazel Dell is.


My sense is Mayor Tim Leavitt and Councilor Jack Burkman don’t like this Hazel Dell plan. All the other councilors are open to it.

Councilor Alishia Topper appears to be its most vocal supporter.

“I would like us to see this move forward for public hearings so we could hear from voters and how they feel about this being two miles outside of the city limits,” she said.

I get that, but for my money, Hazel Dell residents are the ones who need to be heard from.

And to Topper’s credit, she couldn’t agree more. She said Thursday that the Hazel Dell proposal is just in the talking stages now and citizens’ voices will be heard.

“Hazel Dell shouldn’t be worried at this point,” she said.

Oh, guess who is already hearing from those Hazel Dell voices? County council Chair Marc Boldt. Hazel Dell is unincorporated, so the county government oversees it.

Hazel Dell folks aren’t too happy. Neither is Boldt.

“We’re writing a letter (to the city) saying we don’t support this,” Boldt said Thursday.

Boldt added he understands the county also has a responsibility to help the homeless but he doesn’t like how the Vancouver process was handled.

“My phone started ringing at 6:30 in the morning when your (The Columbian’s) story appeared.”

And what were you hearing, Chairman Boldt?

“They’re telling us ‘No way!’”

I think Topper’s motives are genuine and heartfelt. She sees an opportunity to help those in need and the Hazel Dell building presented itself. She acknowledges no matter where you put a homeless shelter, there will be opposition. She said a viable option to do this in Vancouver would cost considerably more, so she’s supporting the Hazel Dell option. But she would also support a site in Vancouver.

She also insists this is not an attempt to simply move the homeless out of Vancouver and cites the number of homeless shelters already in the city as evidence.

In the end, my support goes to making sure all the stakeholders are heard from.