“This is kind of a humbling experience, truthfully,” Spinelli said. “So many people have helped us get here. It is not lost on me how fortunate we are that this is a priority for the entirety of the (Vancouver City) Council.”
Ashley Sandberg, one of the 415 West residents, is looking forward to the warmth.
“It’s just been freezing out here lately,” Sandberg said, her breath visible in her tarp-layered tent a few days before moving into the pallet shelter community. She became homeless in July, and moved to the City Hall camp during a heat spell on Independence Day after fleeing domestic violence, she said.
As the weather gets colder, maintaining good health and safety for residents living outside becomes more challenging, due to exposure to the elements. The pallet shelters are each equipped with a heating and cooling unit.
The third Safe Stay was originally scheduled to open early this year, but it was delayed due to weather and then supply chain issues during the spring.
Spinelli said the Safe Stays are imperative for the safety of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. The average lifespan of a person experiencing homelessness is shorter by about 17 years than the general population, according to national estimates.
On Nov. 10, the city of Vancouver declared a civil emergency in regard to homelessness in response to a growing number of people living outside in unsafe conditions. The city of Vancouver’s Homeless Assistance and Resource Team, or HART, recorded the deaths of 24 people experiencing homelessness this year, as of Nov. 6.
“We have had people pass away from health issues, from overdoses, from suicide,” Spinelli said.
“There are so many people who could have benefited from this space over the last year. So while I’m certainly happy that it is here … I also know there are people who could have benefited from this space.”
The new site provides 24/7 security from both service workers and cameras surveilling inside and outside the pallet shelter community.
For The Outpost Safe Stay site in Vancouver’s North Image neighborhood, police calls and officer-initiated visits within a 500-foot radius of the community dropped 30 percent within its first six months of operation. At the second Safe Stay, Hope Village, a six-month report also highlighted a decrease in law enforcement calls.
Spinelli said the safety measures are for the entire community.
“Truthfully, the majority of the problems — especially over at The Outpost — have been from people on the outside,” Spinelli said.
People have shouted at Safe Stay and Safe Park residents, she said, and shot fireworks into The Outpost site.
The third Safe Stay received some pushback, with nearby businesses concerned the pallet shelter community would attract more crime or cause them to lose clientele.
David Fuller, owner of Hamilton-Mylan Funeral Home, still has some concerns the Safe Stay will deter customers, he said, and feels another area would have been better for 415 West.
“It’s not a draw for other businesses to come into the area,” Fuller said.
But he’s taking a “wait-and-see” approach, he said, and hopes the city will enforce the camping ban within 1,000 feet of the Safe Stay.
“I’m not, not sensitive to the feelings of people and their concerns,” Spinelli said. “People do tend to fear the unknown — that’s natural. In my experience with the other two neighborhoods (other Safe Stay communities), people who have those concerns have now come back and said: ‘I was wrong about this.’ ”
When Sabrina and James Thayer walked into the new Safe Stay, they noticed one thing was different from The Outpost, where they stayed a year ago: showers and laundry.
“There are going to be a lot of homeless people coming in who haven’t had a shower for god knows how long,” Sabrina Thayer said. “I’m excited for these people coming in, and hopefully, they can get the help like we did and move on.”
After three months in Vancouver’s first Safe Stay, the Thayers moved into their tiny home, where they live with their dog and two cats. They’re grateful for The Outpost, where they said they found “a family.”
“This is a stepping stone,” Sabrina Thayer said. “Their next journey starts here.”
It’s no secret that housing is a life changer. Studies show stable housing helps people’s mental, physical and emotional well-being. The Safe Stays are meant to support people, out of the elements and off the street, while they secure more permanent housing.
As of Aug. 31, the Safe Stay communities have served 186 people, assisted 48 residents in gaining employment and helped 73 people move into stable housing, according to city data. Spinelli said on average, people stay about three to four months at the Safe Stays.
Although the pallet shelters aren’t meant to be permanent housing, Spinelli wants them to feel homey. She decorated each one with string lights, adding to the festive atmosphere of the community.
The fourth Safe Stay, which will be managed by Do Good Multnomah, is anticipated to open in December.
“I hope we can save some lives and make things safer for folks,” Spinelli said.
Jp Walmer, a 72-year-old man whom The Columbian has featured in multiple stories after meeting him on his first day of being homeless, is now a resident of 415 West.
After spending about four months in a camp near City Hall, he now lives in one of the pallet shelters with heat and air conditioning. On Monday, he helped his new neighbors move into the Safe Stay.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said with a smile while surveying his new home.
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.