Kaylin Tompkins sits cross-legged on the carpet surrounded by her four children. She tickles them, cuddles them and asks them questions in that high-pitched mom voice reserved for little ones. Karly, 7, sits quietly, hands folded, on her mom’s leg while 1½-year-old AJ dives into his mom’s lap. The twins — Kamryn and Kristina — lie on their stomachs, giggling.
“I know, I don’t have enough lap for you all,” Tompkins says.
This floor where they play is not their floor. The toys around them are not their toys. The beds where they rest their heads at night, along with all of the other furniture in this basement, are not theirs, either. The lit Christmas tree and stockings on the mantle were a surprise gift from the family that lives upstairs and owns the house they’re staying in.
Tompkins’ family of five may not look it, but they’re homeless.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. While at the Longview Emergency Support Shelter a couple of months ago, Tompkins, 29, got a housing voucher that would partially cover rent while she dug herself out of poverty. But she couldn’t find a landlord that would accept her voucher before the family’s two-month stay at the shelter ended. She thought she would fare better in Clark County.
They have lived in the Bonnin family’s basement ever since.
“It makes me as a parent feel kind of like a failure,” Tompkins said.
But she is far from alone.
Miles away, Donna Pinaula and two of her children sleep at a Vancouver homeless shelter. Another family, the Hilenskis, stay in a room at the Woodland Motel 6. All three of these families are among the hidden homeless — people in temporary indoor living arrangements who are struggling to improve their situations. Compounding their crisis is the very nature of those temporary arrangements. Eventually, for one reason or another, they have to move on and start over again.
Homelessness, whether people are indoors or outdoors, is transient.
With rising rents and vacancy rates estimated to be less than 2 percent in Clark County, those on the bottom financial rung have been squeezed out of the rental market. That relationship between homelessness and affordable housing is clear to Andy Silver, who has headed the Council for the Homeless for more than three years.
The housing market broke the homelessness system. Andy Silver, Council for the Homeless
“We built a homelessness system that is almost 100 percent reliant on the private rental market. The private rental market dynamics right now don’t support that relationship,” said Silver. “The housing market broke the homelessness system.”
Ideally, Tompkins would’ve smoothly transitioned from the shelter to affordable subsidized housing. Maybe, in a perfect world, the family never would’ve had to go to the shelter to start with. The steps built into the homeless system are supposed to limit the amount of time that families are exposed to homelessness, as the experience has adverse impacts on people whatever their age.
Even resilient youngsters, like Tompkins’ happy-go-lucky 7-month-old twins, carry the stress of homelessness.
That’s a cost that the community and its taxpayers will have to bear down the road, Silver said. The more people who are priced out of housing and end up homeless, the greater the cost.
“Kaylin and her kids are going to pay for it in the stress and the horrible experience they’re having right now,” he said. “We’re also going to pay for it in the community in the costs of any sort of negative health outcomes that her kids have or negative education outcomes. All those things cost the community more and more money because we didn’t provide them the support they needed at the beginning.”
‘This is hard times’
Becoming employed is tough for 38-year-old Pinaula. She’s been unemployed since 2012, having last worked at the now-shuttered bakery at Albertsons. She’s been in and out of shelters and stayed outside in tents.
“I’m showing my kids this is hard times. This is no lifestyle for anybody,” Pinaula said, who’s a mother of six. “This is the last time we’re going to be homeless ever again.”
Securing housing wouldn’t solve all of Pinaula’s problems. It wouldn’t erase her poverty or her gaps in employment. But, it could provide the stability she needs to pursue a more meaningful job search and offer a brighter future for her children, Silver said.
“There’s the clear role that stable housing plays in helping people live whole, successful lives,” he said. “You can see all of the things that happen when that stability isn’t there — all the things that are made harder, more expensive, more stressful for families.”
During the day, Pinaula takes the bus wherever she needs to go, whether she’s dropping off a résumé, going to her support group at the YWCA, getting food, washing her clothes at a laundromat or getting things out of storage. All the travel eats up time that could be used to better her situation.
“When you add it all up, what it means is people are spending their entire days just trying to scrape by with the very, very basics,” Silver said.
The Hilenski family, who live in a single room at the Motel 6, are up for leaving and going somewhere they can afford. It doesn’t matter if they have to leave Woodland.
“I want to go where you can be human. I don’t feel like we’re human,” said Barbara Hilenski, 55. They don’t go to many places outside of the motel room; they can’t afford to, after all.
The family of four can’t find a landlord that will rent to them because they have an eviction and bad credit on their record. With such a high demand for rentals, landlords have options and are more likely to pick tenants with better history.
So, they’re holed up in a small hotel with a small array of options.
“It’s almost mimicking the housing market, what’s happening in motels. Motels are getting filled up with people who are homeless, basically,” Silver said. “They’re burning through money that could be used as a security deposit. So, it creates this cycle.”
The region needs someone who makes it their mission to break the cycle by renting to families like these, Silver said.
“Most landlords are doing it as their job, as a business, as a way to feed their families,” he said. If we don’t have other people in the market who are mission-driven and doing it to give families a safe, stable place, then their experiences are just going to happen over and over again across our community, Silver added.
We have some gaping holes in our community around who’s … really looking at funding sources outside our community to help. Jennifer Rhoads, Community Foundation for Southwest Washington
Just who will lead that mission and how isn’t clear, said Jennifer Rhoads, president of the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington.
“We have some gaping holes in our community around who’s … really looking at funding sources outside our community to help,” she said.
It could be that the Council for the Homeless leads that charge, or an existing housing nonprofit such as Second Step Housing or Columbia Non-Profit Housing could get additional support, in terms of funding and talent, to support more, bigger projects.
It might mean that a wholly new agency needs to be established, Rhoads said.
“I think we’re going to have more clarity … over the next six to 12 months,” she said. “As much as we all want to fix the problem, this is a kind of complicated, long-term problem. Some people probably think, ‘Why is this taking so long?’ or, ‘Why can’t we just fix this?’ We will be having this conversation for years, but I think there’s really good movement right now.”
The Community Foundation educates philanthropists on ways to invest their charitable dollars for the biggest impact. Private donors are interested in doing something about the housing crisis and have their checkbooks ready once the best path forward becomes clear, Rhoads said.
2 states, 1 problem
Part of the problem — and part of the solution — can be found south of the Columbia River. High rents in Portland and its suburbs are driving people to seek cheaper rents in Clark County. As the renter population grows, it puts pressure on the market and rents go up. Low-income families are priced out. Any stark changes in the rental market that happen in Portland trickle down to Clark County.
Yet, learning from and creating partnerships with Portland could help Clark County better manage the housing crisis. As a larger, more established city, Portland comes with a larger support system, including more housing nonprofits.
“We don’t have that in Southwest Washington,” Rhoads said.
But what Southwest Washington also doesn’t have is access to public funding from Oregon.
“People don’t care about the river. People don’t care about Oregon versus Washington. People just want to have a place to live,” Rhoads said. “But that river and that state line is a big thing when it comes to funding sources, especially governmental funding sources and city resources.”
Government dollars may not be able to cross the river, but nonprofit dollars can, Rhoads said. It means more paperwork and a more complicated funding system, but there is a small and growing number of Portland-based housing organizations who’ve decided to serve the whole region, including Clark County.
This movement could help propel Clark County forward, or at least get its plight more attention.
REACH Community Development is working on its first affordable apartment complex, being built in central Vancouver. The Portland nonprofit inherited the 49-unit Isabella Court project after merging with Affordable Community Environments, which was a small housing nonprofit based in Clark County, in 2013. ACE didn’t have the finances to properly sustain itself and its projects, said Lauren Schmidt, fundraising and public relations coordinator at REACH.
“We are a metrowide nonprofit housing organization and view ourselves as part of the Vancouver and Clark County communities,” Schmidt said.
Proud Ground, a Portland-based nonprofit that makes homeownership more affordable for lower-income families, started serving Portland in 1999, then expanded to all of Multnomah County, Ore., in 2010, with Clackamas and Washington counties following suit a couple of years later. It expanded to Clark County last year.
“It’s a regional issue. It’s a regional crisis,” said Kathy Armstrong, deputy director of Proud Ground. “It just makes sense to serve as much of the region as possible.”
Patty Hastings: 360-735-4513; twitter.com/pattyhastings; email@example.com
You can help
- Donate to the Council for the Homeless online. If you want your gift to go toward a specific program, such as the Housing Relief Fund or vouchers for motel stays, make a note in the donation form. Call 360-993-9561 for more information.
- Help impoverished families pay their rent by donating to a local St. Vincent De Paul conference that offers rent and utility assistance. Donations for the Vancouver conference are accepted online. For more information, call 360-694-5388. The Camas/Washougal conference at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church accepts donations online. To contact the North Clark County conference in Battle Ground, call 360-576-0122. All of these nonprofits also accept food, clothing and hygiene supplies.
- The Salvation Army also helps families with utility and rent assistance. Donate at Vancouver Salvation Army or call 360-892-9050. For Washougal, donate at the Washougal Salvation Army or call 360-835-3171. Specify what you would like the donation to go toward in the donation form.
- Share’s Housing and Essential Needs program provides rent assistance and helps pay for motel stays. For more information, call John Kimball at 360-952-8213. You can donate online.
- Donate to the housing resources provided by REACH Community Development on their website or by calling 503-231-0682.
- To support Second Step Housing’s programs, including welcome baskets for newly housed families, donate online or contact Debby Dover at 360-993-5301 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- To help low-income families become homeowners, donate to Proud Ground online.
Groups working to help homeless
Many local entities are invested in solving the housing crisis, in one way or another. These are some of Clark County’s main players:
- Affordable Housing Task Force: This advisory group submits recommendations to the Vancouver City Council and next month will present ideas to increase the supply of affordable housing.
- Clark County council: The county is providing funding to operate a village of tiny houses for the homeless.
- Council for the Homeless: The nonprofit is the main organization that coordinates shelter stays and emergency housing.
- Columbia Non-Profit Housing: This small nonprofit provides housing for low-income households, and looks to build a 30-unit complex for homeless people with mental health challenges.
- Evergreen Habitat for Humanity: The nonprofit has been helping low-income families become homeowners since 1991.
- Friends of the Carpenter: Last week, the nonprofit opened a day center where the homeless can stay warm and get connected to social services.
- Housing developers: Developers have been involved in the Affordable Housing Task Force and conversations around building more housing.
- Open House Ministries: For about 30 years, the nonprofit has provided shelter and programs to help families break the cycle of homelessness.
- Proud Ground: This Portland-based nonprofit helps low-income families become homeowners.
- REACH Community Development: This Portland-based nonprofit owns a network of affordable housing complexes in Vancouver and is building its first housing project in central Vancouver.
- Second Step Housing: The small nonprofit provides transitional and affordable housing, and has a 30-unit complex in the works.
- Share: Besides operating a network of shelters that are chronically full, including the Winter Hospitality Overflow shelters, the nonprofit offers programs benefitting the homeless.
- St. Vincent de Paul: The Clark County conferences help pay people’s rent and utility bills.
- The faith community: Various churches are lending their resources, volunteers and expertise on multiple projects around homelessness and affordable housing.
- Vancouver City Council: The council passed ordinances protecting vulnerable renters, and will consider more laws around affordable housing.
- Vancouver Housing Authority: VHA provides subsidized and affordable housing to low-income families through several programs.