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Monday, October 2, 2023
Oct. 2, 2023

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Clark County Council approves $15.5 million to address homelessness

Federal funds will tackle increases caused by pandemic

By , Columbian county government and small cities reporter

The Clark County Council has approved the use of $15.5 million in federal funds to address increased homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Councilors approved the funding, available through 2024, in a 4-0 vote at a meeting Tuesday night, with Councilor Julie Olson absent. The funding comes from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which was approved by Congress earlier this year to provide COVID-19 relief.

The funding includes $4.4 million to increase the size and abilities of the county’s homeless outreach teams, which help move people into permanent housing. Another $5 million will go to shelters and other types of housing.

The funding will also include $2.5 million for rent assistance and support for existing rapid rehousing programs, as well as $2.5 million for permanent supportive housing programs. The rest of the funding will be spent on motel vouchers to increase indoor shelter bed capacity and other rental and housing support for unhoused people.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has put significant pressure on the (Clark County Homeless Crisis Response System) and homeless service providers over the past year,” said Michael Torres, program manager with Clark County Community Services. “The reality is, without all of those things, we are only going to be talking to people and making contact. We won’t actually be able to connect them to services, and we will only be displacing them someplace else.”

The spending plan can also be adjusted based on need.

The County/City Joint Executive Board on Homelessness, which includes county and Vancouver city officials and started meeting last year, started discussing how to use the newest round of federal stimulus funds in April.

“We were asked to put together a plan for what we can do with additional resources and investments to actually, with a sense of urgency, try to address that visible homelessness with these encampments,” said Vanessa Gaston, the county’s director of community services.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Washington State Department of Transportation has been following guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which, in an effort to avoid the spread of COVID-19, cautioned against dispersing homeless camps. Torres said many of the camps are on state rights of way, which are not under county or city control.

But the county does have the ability to reach out to those living in the camps and connect them with services, a task that will become more urgent as the state moratorium on evictions is set to expire June 30.

“Our current service providers, our current outreach teams, do not have the size, do not have the availability and, in many cases, don’t really have the skill set tools necessary to deal with the needs of individuals within these encampments,” Torres told the council before the vote.

The council has other spending priorities from the stimulus package to sort out, but councilors indicated a desire to approve the funding for homeless services more quickly.

Councilor Temple Lentz said that the funding plan addresses a “very broad set of needs.”

“Oftentimes, when we talk about the unhoused population and increases in visible homelessness, it can so often fall into that, ‘We don’t want to see it,’ not that, ‘We want to do something about it,’” Lentz said. “It’s great to be able to act quickly and get these resources out to the community.”

Councilor Gary Medvigy said that, while the county has already been providing these services on a smaller scale, “this is a time to really push forward.”

“We want to close the camps, but we want to do it in a compassionate and effective way to help return each and every one, by name, to become responsible contributing members of society. So, it’s not a handout. We’re not just throwing money out,” Medvigy said. “We will watch that carefully and hopefully, in the next few years, we will significantly improve the quality of life of all these people that are living on the streets right now in inhumane conditions.”

Columbian county government and small cities reporter