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News / Clark County News

Temporary homeless shelter at former Motel 6 closes

By Jack Heffernan, Columbian county government and small cities reporter
Published: December 8, 2020, 6:23pm

A temporary homeless shelter at the former Motel 6 in east Vancouver, created in response to COVID-19, closed Monday afternoon. The closure, expected for several months as funding sources disappeared, is believed to have left dozens without immediate living arrangements.

The 116-room facility opened in April for homeless people who contracted or come into contact with COVID-19, but it expanded to include those considered to be high-risk if they contracted the virus. Isolation and quarantine activities are expected to continue until at least Dec. 21.

As of Sunday night, 80 people were staying at the expanded shelter, a total of 56 households, said Michael Torres, program manager with Clark County Community Services. Torres said that eight households had found another shelter or permanent housing, 10 didn’t disclose where they were going and 36 did not have living arrangements.

The county’s contract with the facility’s owner expires Dec. 30. Torres said that time is needed to clean rooms and make any repairs.

New shelter coming

Some rosier news followed Tuesday.

The county, city of Vancouver and the Vancouver Housing Authority announced in a news release that they are working on opening a shelter for those who are unhoused in late February or early March.

All three entities will contribute funds, along with federal and state sources. County Community Services will oversee a contract with a nonprofit service provider that has yet to be determined, and the housing authority is working on acquiring a site.

The shelter will be open at all hours of every day, and admittance will be based on referrals.

It will be noncongregate, meaning households will have their own rooms and restrooms. Also, the shelter will connect residents with physical and mental health services.

“Emergency shelter plays an important role in the homeless crisis response system by breaking the cycle of homelessness,” Community Services Director Vanessa Gaston said. “It can be a transformational component to a system that tries to meet people’s basic needs while quickly moving them toward long-term stability.”

The housing authority plans to convert the facility into affordable housing once funds are expended, likely in two to three years.

Community Services’ Michael Torres said that the announcement was not directly related to the closure of the expanded shelter, but it would help take dozens of people at a time off the streets in the coming years.

“We do know there is a need for more shelter capacity in this community,” Torres said. “We have been and continue to seek information for that.”

—Jack Heffernan

The original contract ran through June at a cost of $608,880, paid through a state Department of Commerce grant intended to provide housing and other assistance for those experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.

The Clark County Council then approved using federal CARES Act funding to extend the arrangement, followed by additional dollars from the county Public Health department.

“There truly is no funding to continue operating the site beyond December,” Torres said.

Those staying at the shelter have been warned for several weeks that it would be closing and were encouraged to seek other options, Torres said. Still, several now face a lack of shelter as both the weather and pandemic worsen.

“It is not optimal,” Torres said. “Our service providers, our staff have spent a lot of time to give people options so they would not exit to homelessness and winter.”

People have been leaving the shelter over the past couple of months, Torres said. But others remained, opting instead for the heating, electricity, plumbing, beds and shelter that came with the rooms.

“People felt comfortable there,” Torres said. “Leaving that place, I think, is a hard ask.”

One building is used for quarantine — sheltering those who came in contact with someone who had the virus — and isolation — meaning they had the virus themselves — while another is used as emergency shelter for particularly vulnerable unhoused people, including seniors and those with underlying health conditions. As of Friday, 64 people had stayed there for isolation and 34 went for quarantine, Torres said.

While the entire facility was originally meant for quarantine and isolation, the county began using it this way after the number of unhoused people who were directly impacted by COVID-19 was smaller than expected.

“It is very, very fortunate that we’ve had expanded shelter at all,” Torres said. “It’s because of the teamwork and hard work of many organizations.”

Several people from the expanded shelter have decided that staying outside might be safer than entering another shelter, said Kate Budd, executive director of the Council for the Homeless. She added, though, that local shelters have implemented social distancing protocols.

“Self-determination is very powerful, and we as providers need to respect that,” Budd said. “The opportunity to stay in their own space where they feel safe and secure was their primary concern.”

Torres said that the “success rate,” or rate at which people leaving shelters find permanent housing, is about 30 percent locally. But the impact of COVID-19 on that rate is unclear.

“I do not know what the numbers are going to look like locally, statewide or nationally,” Torres said. “COVID has made it a very strange year.”

In its annual Point in Time count on Jan. 30 this year, which was released in May, the Council for the Homeless recorded 916 people, 516 of whom were living outdoors. The total number of homeless dropped 4 percent from the previous year, but the number living outdoors had more than doubled in five years.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began in the county, those figures are likely worsening as those who previously made more informal housing arrangements find themselves outside, Budd said. “Anecdotally, we are seeing the number of people who are unhoused increase.”

Columbian county government and small cities reporter