When was the last time you had a conversation about homelessness?
That was the first question asked to community members who attended “The Columbian Conversations” event Wednesday in downtown Vancouver.
“Was it with a spouse, a co-worker or a friend?” asked Columbian Innovation Editor Will Campbell, who emceed the event. “Were you in your car … driving along the road and you saw a tent along the side of the road with someone living in it?
“Was it a negative conversation?” he continued. “Did anyone talk about solutions to the problem? Or was it just mostly complaining? Did the conversation trail off without much hope?”
It’s a complicated issue, Campbell said, as his words echoed off the Kiggins Theatre’s walls coated with red velvet curtains and gold molding.
“You’ll walk away from this event tonight with an arsenal of new ideas and new thoughts about housing and homelessness and all of the little issues that are surrounding it,” Campbell said.
The idea for the event started about a year ago to create a news article live on stage with key people involved in the area’s housing and homelessness sector.
The night kicked off with a short documentary screening featuring one of the panelists, Courtney Ligman, who is a resident of one of Vancouver’s two Safe Stay communities. During the video, Ligman told her story of how she became unhoused and the challenges she faces despite being employed and in transitional housing.
“(Homelessness) could happen to anybody — anybody at any stage of life,” Ligman said in the video.
After the video, Kelsey Turner, one of The Columbian’s two community funded homelessness and affordable housing reporters, moderated a panel discussion and led the conversion through the ins and outs encompassing the complexity of homelessness.
Panelists included Ligman and Sesany Fennie-Jones, executive director of Council for the Homeless; Jamie Spinelli, homeless response coordinator with the city of Vancouver; Michael Torres, program manager of community action, housing, and development at Clark County Community Services; Bob McElroy, founder of Alpha Project in San Diego; and Noha Mahgoub, senior policy adviser for housing and homelessness for Gov. Jay Inslee.
“I hope in this conversation tonight, we can capture all the incredible work that’s being done, while not shying away from the fact that this remains a very complex and frustrating crisis for everyone, both housed and unhoused,” Turner said.
Services, substance use and support
The bright fluorescent hues from the spotlights highlighted the six panelists as they started the evening with how outreach services are paramount in the local and statewide community.
For Ligman, outreach workers saved her life.
She spoke about how the Vancouver outreach team built trust with her over time and how people, such as Spinelli, got her to where she is today through persistence and showing her she wasn’t going to give up on her.
“They saved my life … this team of heroes,” Ligman said. “They kept coming back … if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have had this community, and I wouldn’t have had this support. They were everything that I needed that I didn’t know I needed.”
She said that outreach people are the ones “in the trenches” doing the work needed to help people like herself who are experiencing housing instability.
Spinelli, who has 14 years of outreach experience, spoke of the rewards and complexities of working with the unhoused population.
“(Building connections) can take so long because they have been let down by people and systems. There tends to be a lot of burnout and turnover in employees in this field. So you have one case manager one day and then two weeks later, you have a new one and you had no idea this happened … so people lose trust in the system, as well as people who are meant to help,” Spinelli said.
Spinelli said that outreach teams continue to show up and show they are there to help. But she also dived into the more significant issue of lack of resources, services or housing.
“Sometimes there is that window of opportunity with someone saying: ‘OK, I’m ready’ and it’s very, very short — and I don’t have somewhere to take that person immediately. I might have then lost them again for the next month or two years,” Spinelli said.
An overall theme throughout the night was focused on the need for more services and affordable housing to meet the demand in Clark County.
Ligman, who has lived for about a year at The Outpost, the city’s first Safe Stay, spoke to the difficulties of finding permanent housing despite doing everything right, such as getting treatment, finding a job and taking classes.
Since 2017, she has been on a waitlist with the Vancouver Housing Authority for an available, affordable unit. In 2019, she began her assessments.
“I live off disability, when you only make about $900 a month, you can’t afford another place anyways,” she said.
Fennie-Jones said there are a little more than 600 units of permanent supportive housing in Vancouver, and the Council for the Homeless has a waitlist of about 1,400 people.
“The math doesn’t work. We need more permanent supportive housing. We need more affordable housing. When you bring social service support together, people are more successful and they are seeing great success,” she said.
McElroy, who joined the panel virtually from his San Diego home, spoke about solutions to homelessness beyond providing housing.
“Do I support building housing? Absolutely. Is it really the solution to the issue? No,” he said. McElroy said there isn’t enough “monopoly money” in the world to build as many houses as needed to help people. And homelessness goes far beyond just putting someone in a home.
McElroy spoke about how giving people opportunities is needed in San Diego, Vancouver and the United States.
“(Alpha Project) started 3½ decades ago to change the stereotype around homelessness. Unfortunately, so many people live by label and they hear the words homeless and immediately think of dumpster diver, panhandler, crazy person, drug addict — instead of mom, dad, brother, sister, grandma and grandpa,” he said.
After questions prompted by Turner, the event was opened up to community members to ask questions of the panel. One resident asked about substance use disorders within the unhoused community.
Torres said that the drug epidemic and addiction in the community are real, but it is not the cause of homelessness.
“It’s not the cause of the visible (homelessness) we’re seeing … let’s not merge the two and turn the addiction as the ‘why’ (to what) we’re seeing. What we’re seeing is the economy, the cost of living, the cost of housing — that is the ‘why’ to homelessness,” he said.
As someone with lived experience, Fennie-Jones said that most people use drugs in response to trauma.
“Being homeless is traumatic, extremely traumatic and so a lot of the use that you’re seeing in the community is because people are living outside, they don’t have any resources,” she said.
“Like Jamie said, there’s not a lot of treatment … there’s just not the resources to help people. So not only do we have a homelessness problem, but we have … a substance use disorder problem, and we have no help for them.
“We’re failing the community. … We’ve got to do better.”
Spinelli, also in recovery, spoke about harm reduction and the Syringe Services Program.
“It is very important to me, that as a community, we do everything that we can to keep people alive long enough for like the rest of us to get our act together and create the resources that are needed to keep people off of drugs,” she said.
Another audience member asked how to support someone who is experiencing homelessness or a substance use disorder. Panelists said to “unconditionally love them,” even if that’s from afar.
But despite panelists underscoring the complexities and challenges rooted in eradicating homelessness in our state, Torres shared some county statistics that showed things are going in the right direction in addressing the current housing crisis.
Although the pandemic saw an uptick in how many people were experiencing homelessness (31 percent from 2019 to 2022), Clark County increased funding to $15 million to address the crisis (formally $10 million).
The county also added about 130 year-round indoor shelter beds, added $800,000 more in hotel vouchers and has dedicated $2.5 million toward sustaining rapid rehousing efforts. But there was also a decrease of 21 percent in chronic unsheltered homelessness and 40 percent decrease in veterans homelessness. He also said there was an increase of 83 percent for people being able to access shelter and 13 percent for people able to access transitional housing.
“The things that are being done are working. There is success there and that’s really possible because of the work that the service providers are really doing,” he said.
As the night came to a close and the overhead lights blanketed the audience, Campbell reminded everyone to keep the conversation surrounding homelessness alive.
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.