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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Respite beds for homeless compassionate, vital

The Columbian
Published: December 29, 2023, 6:03am

Living unsheltered is a difficult life. Now imagine being unsheltered while facing a serious medical issue. If one can receive care, where are they supposed to go afterward if they need to recover from wound treatment or surgery?

That sad dilemma was detailed recently by Columbian reporter Alexis Weisend, who found that in Clark County, there is just a handful of respite beds available to those experiencing homelessness.

In fact, calling it a handful might be overstating the situation. There are just five respite beds in Clark County for its estimated 9,032 people who are living unsheltered.

Local advocates point to a program in Northeast Portland that provides a model of what respite care could be in Clark County. Central City Concern’s Evergreen Crossing has 90 beds and combines a primary care clinic and shelter where workers tend to clients’ medical needs and help them get housed.

The need is great in Clark County. Adam Kravitz, founder of nonprofit Outsiders Inn, which operates a shelter and two Safe Stay Communities, says about a third of the shelters’ residents need medical care. “My shelters are full of older, medically fragile, vulnerable adults,” Kravitz said.

Nonprofit Share partnered with PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center to dedicate the five beds mentioned earlier for people coming out of the hospital. Occasionally PeaceHealth can send a nurse or other health care professional to provide medical care, but typically that responsibility falls to a Share staff member, who has dozens of other people to see after, plus lacks the necessary medical certification.

“Our goal is to provide quality exceptional care, but we also know we’re not a hospital. I can’t ever expect my staff or my team members to really step into (that) role,” said Brondalyn Coleman, Share’s deputy director.

What can be done? Perhaps one possibility may be found in Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed $70.9 billion supplemental budget. The governor wants to add $464 million in spending for behavioral health to combat the opioid epidemic and the homelessness crisis. It seems to us respite beds to help unsheltered individuals recover from an illness or injury, while getting help finding more permanent housing, could be a worthy program for funding.

For those who might object to providing respite beds to homeless individuals, bear in mind that no or inadequate care is more expensive in the long run. PeaceHealth spokesperson Debra Carnes told Weisend, “There is a significant gap in the care available to our unhoused population. We have very limited options for medically complex patients who have ongoing care needs. These patients are some of the most vulnerable in our community and make up a high portion of our readmitted patients.”

Providing respite care, in comparison, saves about $7,000 per patient over 90 days, according to Jordan Wilhelms, director of recuperative care at Central City Concern, which runs Evergreen Crossing in Portland.

“I think that services like this are necessary because we have invested very little in things that vulnerable people need the most,” Wilhelms said.

Share and PeaceHealth have a tentative plan to expand the respite program. We hope they will pursue that to its fullest. A program that helps our unsheltered neighbors address their health care needs while guiding them into housing would be beneficial to not just those individuals, but to our community as a whole.