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March 30, 2023

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Clark County officials, nonprofits try four new approaches to homelessness

As number who are houseless climbs and shelters continue to be full, advocates turn to innovative programs

By , Columbian staff writer, and
, Columbian staff writer
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9 Photos
Raelene Boyle, who has used Vancouver's Safe Parking Zone for about a year, shares a playful moment with her dog, Liberty, 1 1/2 , on Wednesday. Boyle said the shelter program has been a lifesaver and gave her a chance for a new start. "All things can be made beautiful," she said.
Raelene Boyle, who has used Vancouver's Safe Parking Zone for about a year, shares a playful moment with her dog, Liberty, 1 1/2 , on Wednesday. Boyle said the shelter program has been a lifesaver and gave her a chance for a new start. "All things can be made beautiful," she said. "All things can be turned into good." (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Homelessness is on the rise in Clark County.

More than 4,000 households were homeless at some point in 2021 and nearly 1,500 sought emergency shelter, according to the Council for the Homeless. The organization reported that people of color are more likely to experience homelessness in the region, as are those who identify as LGBTQ. Annual system data with detailed demographic information in 2021 is currently being compiled and will be released in April.

Traditional shelter models like the Winter Hospitality Overflow, the Satellite Overflow Shelter and others are unable to address the need on their own. To meet the growing demand, the city of Vancouver, Clark County, the Vancouver Housing Authority and other community organizations have worked to create new shelter models, many of which began operating in the past few years.

Safe Parking Zone

Parents and children, couples or individuals who live in their vehicles can find a secure and organized place to stay in Vancouver’s Safe Parking Zone at the Evergreen Transit Center, 1504 N.E. 138th Ave. The city resource in partnership with C-Tran initially began as a COVID-19 response in June 2020, and it quickly turned into a dedicated program to help people experiencing houselessness.

More than 50 spots are reserved for cars and recreational vehicles and, on average, the program serves around 70 people. Once the site is full, a waiting list is created. A handful of staff operate the site from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and security officers monitor the area overnight.

Portable restrooms, handwashing stations and trash services are available at the parking area, and the Clark County Food Bank and other local organizations make weekly trips to deliver hot meals or food boxes.

There is no application process or time limit for how long people can stay at the parking space, but participants must use a  motor vehicle as their main shelter to qualify. Those who are interested can save some gas and call on-site staff at 360-947-6159 to see if there are any vacancies in the lot. They can also be reached via email at or at their office phone, 360-487-8626.

It costs roughly $365,000 annually to operate the site, with most of the costs covering security, temporary staffing and sanitation services.

City staff are actively looking for potential locations for an additional Safe Parking Zone but are focused on establishing Safe Stay Communities in the meantime.

Safe Stay Communities

The city of Vancouver introduced two villagelike communities designed to each house up to 40 people and connect them to local social services to help them transition out of homelessness.

Safe Stay Communities have 20 weather-resistant modular shelters, garbage and sanitation services, toilets and handwashing stations, and communal spaces. A nonprofit service provider monitors the fenced outdoor community 24/7 and facilitates group work for the residents.

Vancouver’s first Safe Stay Community is located along a cul-de-sac in the North Image neighborhood at 11400 N.E. 51st Circle. It is operated by Vancouver-based nonprofit Outsiders Inn. Living Hope Church was tagged to operate the city’s second Safe Stay Community, planned for the former site of Golden Skate, 4915 E. Fourth Plain Blvd.

Each location is on city-owned property and contracts with providers must be approved by the Vancouver City Council.

The city funds each transitional village on an annual basis for its operational services; Outsiders Inn received a $571,148 contract and Living Hope Church received $552,212. There are minimal construction costs to create each community, with most of the funding used to purchase its shelters. The first site’s shelters cost $7,900 per unit, totaling $160,00 for the community.

Vancouver’s goal is to establish three outdoor communities throughout the city.

Shelters in renovated hotels

Bertha’s Place, a shelter run out of the former Howard Johnson’s hotel in central Vancouver at 9201 N.E. Vancouver Mall Drive, opened lastin December to house women, couples and people over 55.

The shelter accommodates 62 people and is noncongregate, meaning residents have their own private rooms with bathrooms and beds. A communal kitchen and gathering space are also available.

To gain access to the shelter, people need a referral through an organization such as Council for the Homeless. There is no time limit for how long someone can stay if they follow the rules and are filling the requirements of their referral. Most referrals require people to be actively working toward finding employment or long-term housing.

The Vancouver Housing Authority purchased the hotel for $5.5 million to convert it into a shelter in 2021. A $5.1 million grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce and $355,134 from the county covered the cost.

After purchasing the hotel, the Vancouver Housing Authority identified $1.4 million in needed renovations, such as plumbing, room restoration and accessibility improvements. The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation provided $500,000, and the city of Vancouver provided $900,000 to cover those costs. The Community Foundation for Southwest Washington provided additional funding.

After purchasing the hotel, Clark County Community Services, in cooperation with the Vancouver Housing Authority and the city of Vancouver, selected Catholic Community Services of Western Washington to operate the shelter.

Current funding for shelter operations comes from a variety of state, federal and local sources.

The Vancouver Housing Authority is looking for additional hotels in Clark County that can be transformed into shelters for both temporary and permanent housing opportunities, but finding owners willing to sell has been a challenge.

The cost of purchasing and renovating a hotel varies widely depending on the location and condition of the building. Funding sources to purchase hotels are varied, as well. State lawmakers have proposed providing additional funding for the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Rapid Capital Housing Acquisition program, which provided the $5.1 million to purchase Bertha’s Place. Additional funds are currently available through the county for projects, according to Roy Johnson, executive director of the Vancouver Housing Authority.

Tiny home clusters

The Vancouver-based nonprofit Community Roots Collaborative constructed 21 tiny homes on a plot of land at 1901 N.W. 69th Circle in Fruit Valley in 2021 to help alleviate homelessness in Clark County. An old rail house on the property was also renovated to provide three additional residential units. The land was previously owned by the Vancouver Housing Authority.

Together, the tiny homes and rail house make up Fruit Valley Terrace, an interconnected community of permanently affordable homes overseen by the nonprofit.

Each tiny home is around 400 square feet and includes water, electricity, and a washer and dryer. Each unit houses one to three people.

Traditional Shelter Services and the People They Support

Winter Hospitality Overflow and Satellite Overflow Shelters: Up to 73 people per night

Share House: Up to 30 men per night

Share Homestead: Up to 86 people per night (families and single women)

Share Orchards Inn: Up to 86 people per night (families and single women)

Fruit Valley Terrace is currently at full occupancy with 39 residents in the 24 units. To gain access to the community, prospective tenants need to make less than 50 percent of the area’s median income and be referred by a partner group, like Kleen Street Community Club. Once someone moves into one of the tiny homes, there is no time limit for how long they can stay.

Tenants pay rent and utilities on their tiny homes, but the cost is low — $650 for rent and roughly $50 for utilities per month — thanks to an affordable leasing model.

The cost to develop the land was $660,000. Each tiny home costs $117,000 to build, totaling roughly $3 million for the whole project. Each tiny home except for one is equipped with a solar panel, which virtually eliminates electric utility costs. Each home is expected to last for more than 50 years. The tiny homes were constructed by Wolf Industries.

Operational costs total about $8,000 per month to staff a full-time property manager and care manager.

Funding for the project came from a variety of sources, including $3.7 million raised from the city and state, and private and community efforts.

Community Roots Collaborative is working to develop more sites like Fruit Valley Terrace, and upcoming projects are expected to be announced soon. The costs for those projects will vary depending on land development needs and construction costs. Funding for those projects will also come from a variety of sources. Community Roots Collaborative is currently working with a $50,000 grant from the city of Vancouver and a $2.2 million grant to develop future sites, plus funding from a variety of community partners.