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News / Clark County News

Vancouver’s first Safe Stay Community turns 1

By Kelsey Turner, Columbian staff reporter
Published: January 2, 2023, 6:46pm
4 Photos
Former resident Sabrina Thayer, from left in maroon, celebrates the one year anniversary of The Outpost Safe Stay Community with Ren Autrey of Outsiders Inn and her husband, Jim Thayer, on Monday afternoon.
Former resident Sabrina Thayer, from left in maroon, celebrates the one year anniversary of The Outpost Safe Stay Community with Ren Autrey of Outsiders Inn and her husband, Jim Thayer, on Monday afternoon. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A few weeks ago, Sabrina Thayer decided to throw a party. She planned to set up tables and a banner, have dessert, balloons and hot drinks. She wanted to thank her family for everything they’ve given her — not her biological family, but her found family at The Outpost, Vancouver’s first Safe Stay Community for people experiencing homelessness.

Located at 11400 N.E. 51st Circle and operated 24/7 by Outsiders Inn staff, The Outpost hit its one-year anniversary on Dec. 23. Though Thayer’s first attempt at a party was delayed by the ice storm right before Christmas, Monday’s attempt went according to plan.

“The staff has done so much hard work for every single person that comes in,” Thayer said at the anniversary celebration on Monday evening. “I wanted to do something special for the pods, and I wanted to show the community that we are here and there hasn’t been any issues.”

Thayer and her husband, Jim, lived at The Outpost for three months before moving into permanent housing at the Fruit Valley Terrace tiny homes community. The Safe Stay enabled them to get off Vancouver’s streets and find neighbors who they could relate to. Even though they moved out, they still visit The Outpost frequently, and Jim Thayer now has a job with Outsiders Inn.

“These are my family, and I will never turn my back. If one person needs a friend, I’m here,” Thayer said.

The Outpost features 20 small modular pallet shelters. It can house up to 40 people. It has sanitation services, portable toilets, handwashing stations, meeting spaces and a communal kitchen area. The city of Vancouver is budgeted for a total of five Safe Stay Communities, two of which are already open. A third is scheduled to open downtown early this year.

The Safe Stay also offers intangible benefits to residents: a sense of community, a stable place to get treatment for substance use if needed, improvements in mental health and more.

“Every single person that has come to the program, no matter the outcome, we feel like we really are affecting people’s lives in profound ways,” said Adam Kravitz, Outsiders Inn executive director. “Offering people stability and hope coming out of a traumatic situation, from people with experience of that trauma and understanding of where hope can come from, has been so impactful.”

Successes and challenges

The Outpost served 79 individuals in its first year, 33 of whom have moved into permanent housing. Police calls and officer-initiated visits within a 500-foot radius of the community dropped 30 percent in its first six months of operation.

In another success, Gov. Jay Inslee toured the site in October, hailing it as a model for the state. “We’ve had visits from so many different communities and cities and representatives and neighbors,” Kravitz said.

While on the tour, Inslee spoke to Outpost resident Sjon Tori Mackey, a former heroin addict who was released from prison into homelessness. He lived on Clark County’s streets for eight years, unable to make good decisions for himself, he said.

Now at the Safe Stay for nearly six months, Mackey is overcoming his addiction using medication-assisted treatment. Columbia River Mental Health staff members helped him make the necessary appointments and referrals. “Everything that I couldn’t do, I was able to do when I got here,” Mackey said at the anniversary party.

Mackey’s story struck a chord with Inslee, who invited Mackey, Kravitz and Outsiders Inn Deputy Director Ren Autrey to his State of the State Address later this month.

For all its successes, however, the Safe Stay has faced its share of challenges. Inslee’s tour occurred just days after developer Herontide II LLC filed a lawsuit against the city alleging the community blocked access to its nearby development.

Not everyone who enters the shelter successfully transitions to permanent housing. Twenty-one Outpost residents have either been asked to leave or have chosen to leave the program.

“Sometimes, substance use has been a reason why a person has left,” Kravitz said. “When people leave under those circumstances, we do everything in our power to let them know that they’re welcome back when they’re ready.”

One major challenge in The Outpost’s first year, according to Kravitz, was fighting the local fentanyl epidemic. “Me and all our folks, we’re pretty familiar with recovery and addiction on an intimate level. This new epidemic is harder, rougher, and is treating people in such a bad way that it’s hard for all of us to watch the effects,” he said.

Another reason the Safe Stay model doesn’t work for everyone is that some residents struggle to transition to indoor living, said Vancouver Homelessness Response Coordinator Jamie Spinelli. “There is kind of a culture, kind of a way of life out there that’s very different than living in a community with others,” she said. Following the Safe Stay’s rules can therefore prove difficult for some.

Constant engagement with support from Outsiders Inn and city staff also takes adjustment, Spinelli added. “We care for you. We want what’s good for you. We want to help you find what it is you’re looking for. All that can be very overwhelming for people.”

Lessons learned

As Outsiders Inn gears up to staff the city’s third Safe Stay Community, its staff is reflecting on what they might do differently going forward. One lesson the organization has learned is how to incorporate pet care into the community.

About a third of Outpost residents have pets, according to Kravitz. “This has been a problem in the homeless community for forever, that folks with pets could never get into shelter,” he said. He plans for the new Safe Stay to have a pet area for animals to run around, as well as resources and rules regarding pet management.

Outsiders Inn will carry out its pet care goals through its partnership with the Humane Society. “A lot of times, these pets are life-saving,” Kravitz said. “It makes for stabilizing folks a whole lot better and easier and more trauma-informed.”

Working with couples has also been a learning curve, Kravitz noted. The city’s Safe Stays don’t allow children, so many residents are either single adults or couples. “Allowing couples to each have their own individual path while still being a family unit is something that we’ve endeavored to do,” he said.

Many couples need time to adjust to living together in such a small space, Spinelli said. “A lot of us struggle as adults with living, if lucky enough, in a full-sized home with a roommate or a partner. And so in close quarters, that can be particularly challenging,” she said.

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Despite the challenges, Spinelli knows the top priority — especially in wet, freezing winter weather — is to get people indoors. With that in mind, she constantly reminds herself not to let perfect be the enemy of good.

“Really, what’s the most important thing is that we’re providing safer and more humane living conditions for people,” she said. “We started these with just porta-potties and handwashing stations, and we’ve figured out things like showers and laundry and things like that, including meals, along the way. And I think that that has probably saved some lives.”

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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.

Columbian staff reporter