The closing of a Motel 6 as a homeless shelter in east Vancouver exemplifies an ongoing issue in Clark County. The battle against homelessness has been marked by good intentions resulting in stopgap measures, with the latest effort coming and going amid a coronavirus pandemic.
County officials this year rented the Motel 6 for use as a shelter, recognizing that homeless populations are particularly vulnerable to the pandemic. An original contract ran through June at a cost of about $600,000, paid for by a state Department of Commerce grant; after that, the Clark County Council approved the use of federal CARES Act funds to continue using the hotel as a shelter.
Now, the funding is running out. Most recently, about 80 people from 56 households were staying at the hotel.
The need for the program was clear. Unhoused people often are unable to follow recommended protocols for avoiding COVID-19 and frequently have underlying health conditions that make them particularly susceptible to the disease. COVID has infected more than 10,000 people in Clark County since March and has contributed to more than 100 deaths.
With a pandemic underway, use of the motel could be seen as an investment in public health and a protection for the region’s health care system. The point of business shutdowns and mitigation efforts has been to prevent the local hospital system from being overrun by coronavirus cases, a threat that has returned with a recent rise in cases. And the cost of caring for people who don’t have health insurance is borne by taxpayers.
The imminent closing of the shelter demonstrates the concerns involved. Officials say eight households have found alternative housing, while 10 did not disclose where they were going and 36 did not have living arrangements. The alternative, too often, is living without shelter and in situations that can endanger their health and that of the public.
“Emergency shelter plays an important role in the homeless crisis response system by breaking the cycle of homelessness,” said Vanessa Gaston, the county’s community services director. “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.”
Prior to the pandemic, homelessness was one of the most pressing topics facing Clark County and its cities. While attention has been diverted because of concerns about the local economy, schools and public health, homelessness has lingered as an issue and will remain after coronavirus has dissipated.
Officials from Clark County, the city of Vancouver and the Vancouver Housing Authority have announced plans for a new shelter to open in late February or early March. Each entity will contribute funding, along with federal and state sources. “We do know there is a need for more shelter capacity in this community,” said Michael Torres of Clark County Community Services. “We have been and continue to seek information for that.” Officials say the shelter will connect residents with physical and mental health services.
Continued attention to homelessness and efforts to secure shelter for those in need not only is a moral imperative, it can have financial benefits for the county. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a chronically homeless person costs taxpayers an average of more than $30,000 per year; costs are cut in half when that person is placed in supportive housing.
The county must continue to make that a priority, even among other pressing needs.