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Helping homeless put down stakes in Vancouver’s first Safe Stay Community

Vancouver clears unauthorized campers ahead of opening of inaugural site

By , Columbian staff writer
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Residents clear out their belongings from a homeless encampment in the North Image neighborhood Monday afternoon to comply with Vancouver's camping ordinance. According to the rule, there can't be unrestricted camping within 1,200 feet of Safe Stay Communities.
Residents clear out their belongings from a homeless encampment in the North Image neighborhood Monday afternoon to comply with Vancouver's camping ordinance. According to the rule, there can't be unrestricted camping within 1,200 feet of Safe Stay Communities. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

City staff began clearing unsanctioned tents on Northeast 51st Circle on Monday in preparation for Vancouver’s first Safe Stay Community, which is set to open Dec. 23.

Unregulated tents in the cul-de-sac, which hosted about 35 occupants, were removed to comply with the city’s camping ordinance, which prohibits camping within 1,000 feet of the supportive site. Jamie Spinelli, the city’s homeless response coordinator, said city staff and outreach organizations finished clearing the area Tuesday.

The supportive site is set to provide 20 modular Pallet Shelters that house two people each. There will be trash services, portable toilets and handwashing stations, gathering spaces, and access to resources provided by local agencies. It was designed to be homelike and serve as an asset to nearby neighborhoods.

Those who were staying in the cul-de-sac were given a two-week notice. They were also offered resources to help them transition, such as moving into the Safe Stay Community, going to a shelter, or getting a temporary motel voucher, Spinelli said.

Staff offered to store people’s items as they determined their living situation. Monday they helped individuals sort through their belongings. The following day, larger equipment came through to pick up trash and the remaining items. However, not everyone was enthusiastic to move.

“Folks have been living here since August 2020, so they’ve been settled in,” Spinelli said. “A transition like that is hard — no question.”

North Image neighborhood resident Petra Pandora, as well as other Vancouver residents, are concerned about the increasingly cold weather threatening the health and safety of houseless people. Pandora doesn’t know where the people from the encampment are going to live until they can move into the Safe Stay Community or other shelters.

“(The city) is displacing the already displaced,” she said. “They already have nowhere to go and that’s why they are there.”

Pandora, who experienced homelessness herself, said she wants to “hoard” those who don’t have a place to live in her apartment but can’t because of limited space and resources. In the meantime, she is offering access to her shower, storage space and laundry facilities to those in the camp that she’s befriended.

Vancouver’s conversation around its homelessness is nuanced, and many people have concerns regarding the supportive community. A common thread, though, is that homelessness is a pervasive issue that needs to be solved.

On the city of Vancouver’s public comment site, people argue that the Safe Stay Community opens a door to a barrage of increased crime and drug use. Others say Vancouver’s efforts to help unhoused people serves as a supportive model that offers security, safety and stability — elements that are quintessential for healing and recovery.

James Dougherty of Vancouver said he is worried the city’s initiative will be a duplicate of its unsuccessful Navigation Center project, which permanently closed during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dougherty, who lived one block from the day shelter during its operation, said he conveyed several complaints regarding crime and vandalism in his neighborhood that he attributed to the facility’s clients. These issues were mismanaged by the city, he said, and neighbors’ complaints seemed unheard.

Those who oppose the Safe Stay Community are concerned their opinions won’t be addressed by city staff. Dougherty said the city’s plans for the former Navigation Center seemed solidified regardless of what residents had to say, and he thinks it’s happening again.

“(City staff said) they wanted input but, according to their timeline, it wouldn’t change their path,” he said.

Spinelli said her hope for the Safe Stay Community’s public comment and information site is to serve as a means of contact between residents and the city. Although the city’s plans have been established, hearing feedback helps staff determine what rules should be created and how to mitigate their efforts in the community’s operation.

“I don’t anticipate having nearly as many issues as people think we will,” she said. “I understand the concern for the neighbors. But I think that once it’s open, it’ll be calmer and more manageable.”

Plus, there are distinctions between the Safe Stay Community and the Navigation Center, she said.

Spinelli said people experiencing houselessness from throughout the city came to the Navigation Center and, when the shelter closed in the evening, stayed in the neighboring areas. Conversely, the Stay Safe Community is supervised by Outsiders Inn at all times and unauthorized camping is prohibited.

“A lot of coming up with this plan came from what we learned from the Navigation Center,” she said.

One project, such as the Safe Stay Communities, will not solve homelessness. However, programs operating in conjunction with one another will make a difference, officials say.

For example, an additional Safe Parking Zone will be established in Vancouver after its initial success at C-Tran’s Evergreen Transit Center at 1504 N.E. 138th Ave. Around 60 people who are living in their vehicles can park at these sites, which are under supervision and host supportive services.

“(People experiencing houselessness) still exist and they need a place to stay,” Spinelli said.

The city plans on creating more Safe Stay Communities, but a contract hasn’t been award for the next locations. In the meantime, staff are focusing on finishing the current project on a high note.

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