Clark County Community Services is searching for motels to house homeless people who need to be quarantined or isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Washington State Department of Commerce last week announced it would distribute $30 million statewide, including $1.1 million for Clark County.
Director of Community Services Vanessa Gaston said the county already received approval to use Telecare’s shuttered 11-bed evaluation and treatment center at the Center for Community Health. In total, the county is aiming to open at least 200 shelter beds in early April. Those who have to be quarantined could use some shared facilities or common areas, while those who need to be isolated would need to be housed separate from other people.
“This is strictly for people who were impacted by exposure or actually diagnosed with COVID-19 who are homeless,” Gaston said. “We’re just trying to get ahead of this so we don’t end up like King County.”
The $1.1 million grant from the state might also be used to purchase hygiene and sanitation supplies or create additional shelter beds for people who are not impacted by the virus, but the county and homeless service providers aren’t sure the grant can cover those costs.
“While it’s a very large amount of money, I don’t think it will go as far as we need it to, unfortunately,” said Kate Budd, executive director of Council for the Homeless. “It’ll be stretched as far as it can, of course.”
The cost of renting buildings, staffing them and providing all of the necessary services can get expensive quickly, she said. It’s possible the county may turn to the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington to fund emergent needs for the homeless community.
The Department of Commerce disbursed money based on county homelessness statistics. According to last year’s single-day count of the homeless population, there were 958 homeless people in Clark County and more than half were without shelter.
Community Services staff is working long hours to call potential quarantine and isolation sites and field questions. The department is also working with Public Health for protocol around setting up and running these facilities.
“We’re trying to move quickly,” Gaston said. “There are a lot of things in play and a lot of things we have to work through.”
The next biggest challenge will be hiring staff. People are fearful of being around anyone who’s been exposed to the virus, and staff at local nonprofits are already overwhelmed.
Amy Reynolds, deputy director of Share, said most homeless service providers barely have the capacity to maintain their current service levels.
“It’s difficult at this stage to envision doing more,” she said. “Everyone is struggling with being in crisis themselves as they support others in crisis.”
Share supplied additional staff to the local Winter Hospitality Overflow shelters, which are short on volunteers. The shelter at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Orchards, which houses families and women during the winter months, will close at the end of March. It’s unclear where those people will go. Share’s permanent year-round shelters remain open but are not accepting new referrals.
Reynolds said Share is participating in weekly calls with service providers in Multnomah County, Ore., where the Oregon Convention Center recently was outfitted to house up to 130 people. It’s the second temporary shelter to open since Friday in Portland, according to The Oregonian/OregonLive. Opening similar social distancing shelters in Clark County would be amazing, Reynolds said.
In the meantime, Council for the Homeless is giving out additional motel vouchers so higher-risk people can self-quarantine. They’re also giving out additional tents to keep sick and healthy people separated. Those who are unhoused are vulnerable because they don’t have four walls around them to maintain proper social distancing, Budd said.
The ongoing anxiety housed people feel around the coronavirus is magnified for unhoused people. With the Vancouver Navigation Center, public libraries and Vancouver Mall all closed, there are few indoor places they can go.
“They don’t have the opportunity to isolate the way housed people do,” Reynolds said. “It’s a shrinking world right now for the people we serve.”
Unhoused people are concerned other services and facilities may close in the coming days and weeks. Though closed, the Navigation Center is offering limited services a few days weekly from the facility’s parking lot, and Living Hope Church on Andresen Road is offering food and hosting a shower trailer.
Budd noted that access to bathrooms is the No. 1 way to stay sanitary during the COVID-19.
The city of Vancouver plans to open additional restrooms. Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said Sunday on Facebook that the city was de-winterizing public restrooms and water fountains in community parks. When that’s complete, it will add nine restroom facilities. In addition, the city ordered 20 portable toilets and is working with groups to open handwashing stations.
For people experiencing homelessness, there’s heightened concern and fear of the unknown, Budd said. Her advice to the rest of the community: Be kind to unhoused people.
“They’re in a really challenging situation,” she said. “Just being kind and smiling at someone goes a long way.”