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News / Clark County News

Weather delays construction of downtown Vancouver’s Safe Stay homeless community

Start still on track for early 2023 despite neighbors’ concerns

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: January 18, 2023, 6:03am
3 Photos
A no-parking sign blocks an entrance to the empty lot that is the proposed location of the third Safe Stay site in downtown Vancouver.
A no-parking sign blocks an entrance to the empty lot that is the proposed location of the third Safe Stay site in downtown Vancouver. (Photos by Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

In an empty parking lot in downtown Vancouver, a fresh blanket of rain darkens a bed of loose gravel. The property houses sparse trees and a skirt of bushes along the edge.

But soon enough, the lot will be filled with white pallet shelters and a place to call home for up to 40 community members in need of housing. Yet, complications continue to muddle the timeline on when work will actually begin.

In November, the Vancouver City Council voted 5-2 to green-light a third Safe Stay Community at 415 W. 11th St., in downtown Vancouver.

What initially looked like a January start date has been pushed back by some minor hiccups, most of which are due to winter conditions. The weather has complicated contractors from moving to the next step, which includes paving and for a stormwater drainage analysis, according to Jamie Spinelli, Vancouver’s homeless resource manager.

“We’re looking at late January, early February to start,” Spinelli said.

The timeline of when the housing community will begin welcoming residents remains tentative, too. Spinelli said the new start time aligns with the city’s early 2023 estimate. The analysis’s completion will then jump-start the temporary use permit process and more paving, and the team can begin designing a layout with contractors.

Design changes

The new Safe Stay site will be nearly identical to the two existing sites, though the city plans to adjust the exterior. Due to its downtown location, the site must follow different design standards needed in the neighborhood.

Spinelli said the team is considering wooden fencing rather than chain link, which would appear more attractive on the outside. The proposed fence would also provide residents with more privacy within the site.

The downtown Safe Stay is projected to include 20 modular pallet shelters that can house up to 40 people. It will be staffed 24/7 and will have security cameras looking into the site and outside. Similar to the other two sites, the third Safe Stay will have a mandated 1,000-foot no-camping ban. Spinelli said outreach to people living around the site has already begun.

Neighbors’ concerns

But as work continues to inch along, neighbors of the future Safe Stay site continue to voice concerns about crime, cleanliness and the prospect that the new housing could hinder their businesses.

Project neighbors say they are not opposed to the third Safe Stay, but would rather it be in another location.

Les Wolf, a landlord and owner of Wolf Property Management, has a family legacy in the downtown area. Wolf’s father built the set of buildings in the 1950s; Wolf took over the family company shortly after that.

“To be clear, all of us in the neighborhood support the Safe Stay project. I don’t know the percentages, but I know they’ve had some very positive success come out of it. Our issue is, we don’t feel they have the proper space to have it,” said Wolf.

The backside of Wolf’s building is adjacent to the up-and-coming Safe Stay site. Wolf said the building’s two tenants, or himself, continually have to clean up trash he said is left behind when people experiencing homelessness clear out the dumpsters looking for items.

Terry Phillips, a real estate investment broker and president of TOP Property Group, runs a business across the street from the lot. Currently, he rents out the buildings to tenants and says he has been impacted economically by homelessness downtown. Some tenants have said they will not renew their leases over their safety concerns.

“Our (the neighborhood’s) businesses are affected by that. People come to our place of business and ask about what’s going on with people laying on the sidewalk out there or the camps,” he said.

Phillips said he’d witnessed confrontations between police and people living outside when they were asked to leave. He’s also referenced vandalism and people defecating along the street.

A little way up the street from the third Safe Stay site sits a burgundy brick office building, with a fence skirting along the property line — a new addition to the property, according to Tiffany Couch.

Couch, founder of accounting firm Acuity Forensics, moved to the neighborhood around a year ago and expressed similar concerns to her neighbors, citing safety and fear of economic punches to her client list. She said the owner of her building recently installed the fence to potentially hinder nonclients or staff from accessing the property.

“There’s an embarrassment factor to even consider having a client meeting (at the building) and they have to walk through a fence and then have a code to get in the door. … It’s not safe for my clients to even be here,” she said.

Couch says she leaves work while it’s still daylight because she feels unsafe walking to her car in the dark. She also said she has concerns that on Safe Stay sites, residents are prohibited from drinking or using substances on site. However, she said, residents can use or drink off-site, which could lead people outside her office or neighbors’ buildings.

“If they’re going to put (the Safe Stay) here, I won’t be staying down here,” Couch said.

Assessing successes, challenges

Alternative shelter communities such as the Safe Stay are a popular solution to address the growing need for housing nationwide. According to a study conducted by the University of California Irvine’s Livable Cities Lab, micro-housing communities provide stepping stones to permanent housing and safety for residents and their neighbors by reducing crime.

In northeast Vancouver, The Outpost, the city’s first Safe Stay community, is nestled between groups of apartments. According to a six-month check-in report, The Outpost led to a 30 percent reduction in police calls and officer-initiated visits in the surrounding area.

The Outpost’s six-month report also highlighted that 11 people were classified as “negative exits” — another concern spotlighted by some downtown business owners.

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Spinelli said a “negative exit” could be individuals not ready to “work on their barriers,” residents leaving due to not wanting to live with other people or experiencing difficulty with the transition from prominently outdoor living to the indoors.

Community members opposed to the downtown lot presented several alternative sites, including a parcel behind City Hall that has already been slated for development. Spinelli said the team scouted a downtown location due to the city’s mission to create Safe Stays in areas relevant to the current homeless population. The site also is close to public transportation and social services.

“One priority (is) serving people as close to where they already were as possible,” said Spinelli. “We have a very large population of homeless downtown.”

The downtown location was chosen after the Edward C. Lynch Estate, known for its charitable contributions, offered the land for the Safe Stay use with a temporary lease agreement. However, as work to the site moves forward, neighbors continue to be wary that the Safe Stay site will address the neighborhood’s concerns alongside providing a housing solution.

“I think it’s questionable, given the performance that we’ve seen. There’s a lack of police response, there’s a lack of city response. I think only when people are threatened is there a police response,” Phillips said.

But Spinelli maintains her stance that the third Safe Stay is moving Vancouver in the right direction to address homelessness.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I do believe this will be a positive for this area, I really do — for everyone,” said Spinelli.

Community Funded Journalism logo

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.