The city of Vancouver’s elected leaders are struggling to address the growing segment of the city’s population that lacks a safe place to sleep each night. To help provide guidance, they turned to the contrarian leader of San Diego’s Alpha Project, who believes that we need to create barriers to day shelter programs.
These barriers will ultimately exclude people struggling with untreated mental illness or substance use disorders, rather than provide the necessary health care and social service support to help people regardless of their challenges. The Alpha Project report doesn’t cite any evidence for their approach and ignores dozens of scientific studies to the contrary. It also contradicts the revised plan on homelessness that San Diego recently adopted.
The history of Vancouver’s Navigation Center is simple, but appears to have been forgotten in today’s debate. The cost of housing had been rapidly rising the previous five years, leading to a large increase in the amount of people in our community struggling with housing costs and those who fell into homelessness.
People on fixed incomes had been especially hard hit. Our homeless crisis response system, which includes outreach teams, emergency shelters, and short- and long-term housing assistance, did not have enough capacity to meet the demand. Without sufficient resources, our community began to struggle with the impact of larger numbers of people sleeping outside, without access to basic needs like a bathroom or shower. Neighborhoods and businesses felt the impact through increases in human waste, trash, and drug paraphernalia.
The Vancouver City Council decided that, while working on the long-term issues of housing affordability, creating more supportive housing for people with complex health conditions and scaling our homeless crisis response system, they also needed to address the short-term problem that people needed a place where they could meet their basic needs while lessening the impact on neighborhoods and businesses — a day center.
In the city’s need to open the Navigation Center quickly, protections were not put in place to reduce the impact on the immediate surrounding neighborhood. The anger of neighbors has recently led Vancouver’s leaders to rethink their approach to homelessness.
We absolutely need more emergency shelter, but we cannot redirect funding from programs that provide long-term housing and support to pay for it. The city and its counterparts must prioritize their current budgets to pay for additional shelter.
The city needs to mitigate the impact of the Navigation Center on its surrounding neighborhood, but cannot do so by abandoning the very people the center was designed to help. People who have severe mental illnesses and untreated substance use disorders are not going to disappear from our community if we exclude them from services. If the Navigation Center turns into a place of “privilege,” it will fail the people it was built to serve. Instead, we must integrate additional health care and social service supports to ensure those who need the Navigation Center can achieve their potential.
Finally, and equally importantly, we must continue current levels of funding for permanent affordable housing. Housing in many forms is the true solution to homelessness.
There is no easy path forward because homelessness is a complex issue. We look to our elected leaders to be compassionate, open-minded, and willing to do the hard work to find solutions that will help those the Navigation Center was originally meant to serve.
State Rep. Paul Harris is a Republican from Vancouver. Alishia Topper is a former Vancouver City Councilor and Washington State Housing Finance Commissioner.