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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Vancouver council gives green light to Safe Stay in downtown Vancouver

Pallet shelter community could open as soon as January

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: November 8, 2022, 11:42am

City officials received the green light Monday from the Vancouver City Council to continue pursuing a Safe Stay Community in downtown Vancouver.

The move caused further tension among those who believe the site will be the demise of downtown’s core, while the site’s proponents said fear cannot dictate employing effective means of resolving the area’s homelessness.

The former site of New Heights Church, 415 W. 11th St., was identified as an ideal location for this third Safe Stay Community, which has been under consideration for more than a month. The now vacant lot, northwest of the intersection of West Evergreen Boulevard and Daniels Street, was tagged as a prime spot for its proximity to public transportation and social services.

Vancouver’s Safe Stay Communities have 20 modular shelters that can house up to 40 people, who will have access to services that help them transition out of homelessness. On-site staff occupy the communities 24/7.

The third Safe Stay Community’s draft design includes a fenced area with shelter spots, a laundry room, an office, community spaces, storage sheds and a parking area. A potential timeline outlines construction lasting through December, with the site anticipated to open in mid-January.

Jamie Spinelli, the city’s homeless resources manager, said placing a Safe Stay Community in downtown Vancouver is the best tool the city can provide to mitigate the high rate of homelessness in the area, while also reducing prohibited camping nearby with buffer zones.

Vancouver police and the city’s Homeless Assistance and Resources Team will be directed to enforce a camping ban within 1,000 feet of 415 W. 11th St. — from about Harney to Main streets, west to east, and East 15th Street to Esther Short Park, north to south. (The Columbian’s office and printing plant, at 701 W. Eighth St., is near the edge of the zone.)

The city will send a resource guide to neighboring homes and businesses containing contact information for the homeless response team, a police liaison, a litter removal service and Outsiders Inn, the site’s operator.

In mid-September, the Vancouver City Council approved a temporary license agreement with the lot owner, Edward C. Lynch Estate, and hosted multiple community feedback sessions leading to Monday’s recommendation.

City staff said they received more than 185 comments online relating to the third Safe Stay Community, with more than 140 people attending one or more of four information sessions. Others toured the city’s existing transitional villages in the North Image neighborhood, 11400 N.E. 51st Circle, and in the Fourth Plain corridor, 4915 E. Fourth Plain Blvd.

But residents and local businesses who were present at the Monday council meeting were still wary of this transitional village coming downtown. They shared concerns about crime and the prospect of the site attracting more unsheltered people to downtown’s core, therefore hindering businesses and property values. The site’s design could also draw unflattering attention when juxtaposed with the city’s existing buildings, participants said.

“If the site is built here, I can’t imagine that we will be able to keep or we will want to keep our business in the heart of downtown being affected daily by the goings on of dislocation,” said James Couch of Vancouver.

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Participants were dubious of the city’s process in creating its recommendation, adding that it hasn’t been a transparent process.

Ron Fredrickson, who works in an office building north of the site, said he was bewildered when he heard the paths residents were navigating to engage with city staff.

“When you run a city and you’re communicating with your constituents by them filing public records requests, you have a gigantic problem,” he said, referencing other people’s testimonies.

Councilor Bart Hansen acknowledged transparency comments and was critical of how the recommendation was presented on the council’s agenda. Hansen said it was misleading to label the recommendation as an “update” rather than a move to approve the location.

Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle noted the request stated “having heard and considered public testimony, direct city staff to resume processing this potential Safe Stay Community in the manner prescribed by city code.”

“It doesn’t feel as if a process was conducted in which there could have been any other answer, but yes, for the site,” Councilor Sarah Fox said. “There was only one option given, and it seems as if the only options that our community had to weigh in on would be what would be the conditions of approval.”

Hansen and Fox voted against the recommendation.

Assessing the need, ditching fear

Adam Kravitz, who was once homeless in the downtown core, described sleeping in a doorway during a snowstorm. Kravitz said he woke up to two men leaving a bar and, when passing him, kicking him until he was bloody, bruised and lost consciousness.

“I could hear them walking up the street reminding me that I was nothing, and I didn’t belong there,” Kravitz said, remembering the haze after he was beaten.

The moment was pivotal for Kravitz, who eventually co-founded Outsiders Inn. He sympathized with those who opposed the proposed site and their fear of the unknown, but he said unsheltered people are scared, too.

“My heart goes out to anyone who’s still hurting about this project that will help so many,” Kravitz said. “But I believe that together we can start to create a culture where instead of ignorance and separation, we can, instead, create one of community and education that will lead to connection in a safer Vancouver for us all.”

Spinelli said concerns related to the Lynch property aren’t impossible to resolve, leading city officials to move forward with their recommendation.

“There are already many people living outdoors in this area,” she said. “So, we believe this site will provide a place for many of those folks to go, as well as eliminate the outdoor living that’s already happening here.”

Vancouver Downtown Association Director Michael Walker rallied behind city officials’ recommendation, citing that his organization has experienced the Safe Stays’ impacts firsthand through hiring someone who transitioned from one of the villages. He added the service won’t take away from the glimmer of downtown, rather add to it.

Multiple council members favoring the downtown initiative asserted that dread surrounding the unknown has no place in making strives to resolve homelessness.

“We really shouldn’t let perfectionism be the enemy of good,” Councilor Kim Harless said. “This is actually a way that we are not going to become Portland. We’re not using Portland’s model; we’re using our own model that has shown through the data it works.”

Council member Erik Paulsen said people need to be served where they are, and doing so will be the best route to mitigating adverse consequences already present in downtown Vancouver.

“Until we begin to make progress in solving the larger issue that’s going to persist and to me, this is the latest step in doing that,” he said.

Columbian staff writer