Gov. Jay Inslee toured Vancouver’s first Safe Stay Community on Monday, hailing the city’s efforts to address homelessness as a model for the state.
Inslee visited the Safe Stay at 11400 N.E. 51st Circle and later toured the upcoming Fourth Plain Community Commons affordable housing complex before taking part in a roundtable discussion with community leaders.
The Safe Stay, called The Outpost, has 20 small modular pallet shelters that can house up to 40 people experiencing homelessness. Staffed 24/7 by the on-site nonprofit operator, Outsiders Inn, The Outpost features sanitation services, portable toilets, handwashing stations, meeting spaces and a communal kitchen area.
“What you see here is very successful for a lot of different reasons,” Inslee said. “One, when you do tiny home villages like this, you can house two to three times more people for the same dollar. So we’re getting two to three times more people to get out of the rain, to get in a secure environment, so they can work on some of their other challenges.”
At least 25 residents have moved into permanent housing since the facility opened in December 2021. In its first six months, police calls and officer-initiated visits dropped 30 percent within a 500-foot radius of The Outpost, falling from 108 to 82 calls.
A second reason for its success is the staff’s lived experience with homelessness, Inslee said. “They have a lot of credibility working with the residents to help them get going.”
A third reason, according to Inslee, is the wrap-around services provided at The Outpost. “It’s not just the roof,” he said. “It’s the mental health support, it’s the chemical addiction issues, it’s the medical-assisted treatment.”
Vancouver’s Homelessness Response Coordinator Jamie Spinelli pointed out that about 30 people per year die while living on the city’s streets. “So it’s really — in addition to kind of cleaning up the space — saving lives,” she said.
Washington has put $300 million into rapid housing, which can be used for shelter communities like the Safe Stay, Inslee said.
A model for the state
On the rainy Monday morning, a group of Safe Stay residents sat talking under a tent in the community space, awaiting the governor’s arrival.
“This is the model that they need to have,” said resident Justin Farra. “I’ve been to several different shelters throughout my course of homelessness for 15 years, and I’ve never been able to stay for more than a day or two without it driving me crazy.”
The Outpost’s community-building efforts make a crucial difference compared with other shelters, Farra said. “I feel like the people I’m being surrounded with are good people. So that makes me feel safer right away.”
During the tour, Inslee spoke to Outpost resident Sjon Mackey, who said the Safe Stay saved his life. Mackey previously struggled with heroin addiction, but has now been clean for about three months.
Outpost residents agreed that the city’s Safe Stays can be models not only for Washington, but for other states, as well. The city opened a second Safe Stay in April at 4915 E. Fourth Plain Blvd. and has proposed a downtown site for a third Safe Stay, with the goal of opening five in total.
Spinelli thinks keeping shelter communities small could be key to building this model out across other Washington cities. The Outpost normally houses about 25 people at a time, meaning everyone can participate in regular community meetings and meals.
Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle added that camping is not allowed within a 1,000-foot radius of the Safe Stay sites, which increases the safety of both shelter residents and the surrounding community.
Fourth Plain Community Commons
After the Safe Stay tour, Inslee visited Fourth Plain Community Commons, a mixed-use building at 2200 Norris Road that will feature 106 units of affordable housing on the upper floors and flexible community spaces on the ground floor.
The project, a collaboration between the Vancouver Housing Authority and the city, is on track to open in summer 2023.
“Fundamentally, we don’t have enough housing in the state of Washington,” Inslee said. “We need chemical addiction treatment, we need mental assistance, but fundamentally, we need more housing.”
Building more housing is a priority for the state, he said. Fourth Plain Community Commons provides an example of what that housing could look like.
McEnerny-Ogle led a roundtable discussion after the tours, during which Inslee spoke to representatives from the city, the housing authority, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and community groups.
Inslee sought feedback from roundtable participants regarding the state’s need for transitional housing options like the Safe Stay shelters, which provide people with options that lie somewhere between living on the streets and living in permanent housing.
“In my mind, there’s a little tension between finding the long-term solution and having the transition,” Inslee said. “What is the right ratio of those two?”
Spinelli responded by noting that the importance of transitional housing is often overlooked.
“The time that it takes to really settle in and become accustomed to being a good neighbor and keeping your home clean can take much longer than landlords and other neighbors are willing to give,” Spinelli said. “We have quite frequently seen people lose their housing because of that time it takes to stabilize.”
Inslee said he plans to keep supporting local communities on a state level in their efforts to address homelessness and housing issues.
“By the way, don’t be humble,” Inslee advised roundtable participants as he wrapped up the discussion. “This is a big deal, to get the public to understand the good work that’s going on so we can continue to get public support for it.”
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 and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.