Not far from the busy intersection of Highway 500 and Northeast 112th Avenue, a lonely cul-de-sac leads into an undeveloped parcel of land covered with trees and brush. Although concrete barriers keep automobiles off the asphalt, in recent years it’s become a small village of unhoused people living in tents, under tarps and without restrooms, clean water or garbage disposal.
The cul-de-sac’s formal address, 11400 N.E. 51st Circle, is where the city of Vancouver plans to site its first Stay Safe Community for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness.
In the next few weeks, the city will erect 20 modular pallet shelters housing up to 40 people. Each shelter is weather-tight, and comes with two beds, smoke and carbon dioxide detectors, a fire extinguisher and an electric heater. There will be enough room outside each shelter to park a bicycle.
The property will be fenced and staffed by the city’s selected services provider, Outsiders Inn. There will be restrooms, and trash receptacles, and handwashing facilities, meeting and office space, and access to services that support homeless people.
The community concept sounds much better than the unregulated camping now occurring at the site, but neighbors may have a different opinion. To the city’s credit, it is mailing letters to nearby property owners, residents and businesses informing them of its plans and offering a public comment period that ends Dec. 1.
Over the next few months, the city wants to build three of the supported communities dispersed around town, each close to services such as a C-Tran line.
One of the city’s biggest challenges will be to learn from the mistakes made while operating the Vancouver Navigation Center. The former day center along Northeast Grand Boulevard near Fourth Plain was closed permanently in the early weeks of the pandemic, putting a merciful end to a long list of neighborhood problems including petty crime, littering, drugs and human waste.
An important distinction is that the Navigation Center attracted a large number of people from all around town; when it closed at night its patrons dispersed into the neighborhoods. The Stay Safe Communities will cater to people who are already living in the neighborhood and will be open, and supervised, at all times. Perhaps most importantly, unauthorized camping will be prohibited around the communities, ensuring that a small manageable site doesn’t become a large, uncontrolled problem.
The communities are part of a menu of services Vancouver is rolling out to address the homelessness crisis. The city plans to open additional Safe Parking Zones for people who live in their vehicles. The first of these, located at the Evergreen Transit Center, 1504 N.E. 138th Ave., has been operating successfully at that site for more than a year. It offers 50 parking spots for automobiles and RVs, and is home to approximately 60 people. Like the planned Stay Safe Communities, the parking zone is under on-site management and offers sanitation and supportive services to its residents.
Addressing the community’s vexing problems with homelessness will require a menu of thoughtful solutions. And they will cost money: each of the pallet shelters costs about $7,900 to build, and the Outsiders Inn management contract is for $571,148.
If that seems costly, consider the alternative, which is clearly on view at Portland’s Delta Park and all along Interstate 5 in North Portland.