Vancouver city officials will recommend to the city council Monday that a vacant downtown lot is a viable location for its third Safe Stay Community. If approved, designs will be finalized and construction will begin.
Staff identified the former site of New Heights Church, 415 W. 11th St., as an ideal location for its new homeless shelter site because of its proximity to public transportation and other services. The block under discussion, northwest of the intersection of West Evergreen Boulevard and Daniels Street, has been under consideration for more than a month.
Vancouver City Council approved a temporary license agreement with the lot owner, Edward C. Lynch Estate, in mid-September and hosted community engagement meetings leading to its Nov. 7 recommendation.
If the council approves the recommendation, a draft site plan including shelter locations, common spaces, a parking area and other design components will be finalized, according to a city presentation. Construction would follow and continue through December, with the village slated to open in mid-January 2023.
Neighbors would receive a resource guide with contact information for Vancouver’s Homeless Assistance and Resources Team, a police liaison, a litter removal service and Outsiders Inn, the future site’s service provider.
Vancouver police and the city’s homeless response team would be directed to enforce a ban that prohibits camping within 1,000 feet of 415 W. 11th St. The buffer zone stretches from about Harney Street to Main Street, west to east, and East 15th Street to Esther Short Park, north to south.
Those who want to testify during the Nov. 7 city council meeting can register at www.cityofvancouver.us/citycouncil and must do so before noon that day. Testimonies can be presented in person at City Hall, 415 W. Sixth St., or remotely through GoToMeeting.
‘Everybody has an opinion’
The downtown site has been a point of contention for some residents, especially those who live and work nearby. City staff said they received more than 185 comments online relating to its third Safe Stay Community, with more than 140 people attending the information sessions.
In those meetings, people looked for assurance that safety for both Safe Stay residents and neighboring homes and businesses would be a priority.
“At the end of the day, everybody has an opinion that informs us about how to move forward,” said Vancouver Police Department Officer Tyler Chavers, who is active in the city’s homeless response and helped provide information to residents at the public meetings. “If the only people who ever came to the meetings were all people who supported it, we could have had blind spots.”
David Fuller, owner of the Hamilton-Mylan Funeral Home, attended an information session to express his opposition to the proposed location.
“I’m disappointed in the way that they did it. I don’t believe it’s the proper location for it,” said Fuller, whose funeral home lies about a half block away from the proposed site. “I’ve got families that come in, and they’re not going to be too enthralled about seeing this type of scenery.”
Vancouver resident Tyler Pace disagrees, arguing the proposed site would be beneficial to the community. Pace owns a house in the Hough neighborhood and regularly walks past the vacant lot to get downtown, he said.
“I think it’ll be great for our houseless neighbors who are part of the community,” Pace said. “I think using an empty lot for that kind of use is great and equitable because it means the city is taking care of all of its citizens, not just the business owners or people like me that are fortunate enough to have houses.”
Pace pointed out that, in his view, the Safe Stay would not bring more homelessness into the neighborhood because many homeless people already live downtown. “They’re around these businesses already,” he said. “This would just give them a more formal, safe, monitored location where they can feel safe, and maybe the community can feel safer, as well.”
Vancouver’s first Safe Stay Community at 11400 N.E. 51st Circle in the North Image neighborhood was hailed as a model for addressing homelessness by Gov. Jay Inslee, who visited the site Monday. It was also subject to a complaint from developer Herontide II LLC who alleged the community blocked access to its housing project.
A second Safe Stay opened last spring in the Fourth Plain corridor, 4915 E. Fourth Plain Blvd. The villages have 20 modular shelters that can house up to 40 people while connecting them with services.
At least 25 former residents at the North Image Safe Stay have found permanent housing since the community opened last December. In its first six months, police calls and officer-initiated visits dropped 30 percent within a 500-foot radius of the site.
Safety concerns remain
Regardless of the current Safe Stays’ successes, participants at the city’s community engagement meetings relayed concerns about crime and the potential for an uptick of prohibited camping in downtown Vancouver. They were dismayed by the prospect that the transitional village would deter people from visiting the city, therefore impacting businesses and property values.
Chavers has tried explaining to concerned residents that, in his experience working with Vancouver’s homeless communities, these fears are unfounded, he said.
“I’m okay with people feeling uneasy about things they don’t understand,” Chavers said. “What saddens me is when people want to provide reasons or evidence for why these things are bad, and they’re all fear-based. And when you try to explain to them, ‘Well, those ghosts, those monsters, don’t actually exist in our experience.’…They don’t want to hear it.”
By providing 24/7 on-site staff and prohibiting camping within the buffer zones, the city’s Safe Stays aim to make communities safer, both for its homeless and housed populations.
“The things that people are complaining about are exactly why we want to bring some help and some services in the downtown area,” said Outsiders Inn Executive Director Adam Kravitz. Outsiders Inn operates the first Safe Stay in addition to being the third site’s future operator.
“I was personally homeless in the downtown core for a long time. So for me, it’s personal that we bring services down there,” Kravitz said. “I know a lot of those guys are still out there 10 years later, and that’s not going to go away.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.