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News / Clark County News

Clark Asks: ‘Do homeless people actually want to get off the streets?’

People do want to leave streets but face trauma, addiction and lack of shelter beds

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter, and
Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: October 20, 2023, 6:06am
2 Photos
A homeless encampment is pictured in northeast Vancouver.
A homeless encampment is pictured in northeast Vancouver. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Experiencing homelessness isn’t easy.

Tim, a 41-year-old man originally from Russia, should know. He says he’s been shot, stabbed, attacked and thrown garbage at by passing cars after losing his housing during the pandemic.

He doesn’t go to a shelter, but he wants to.

Through The Columbian’s “Clark Asks” portal, many readers had the same question: Why are people living outside not going to shelters?

Homeless providers say each person has their own answer, but the reasons revolve around a lack of available shelter beds, addiction, trauma and the sense of community they’ve found in camps.

“There is dignity in being able to choose where you are and how you experience your situation,” said Sunny Wonder, deputy director for Council for the Homeless.

Many readers also asked The Columbian: “Do homeless people actually want to get off the streets?”

Based on interviews with people living outside, the answer is yes. People do want to get off the streets — just not necessarily into shelters.

“Shelter is just part of the conversation,” said Wonder. “The next step is affordable housing and do we have enough to meet the need and move folks through shelter. There aren’t too many folks who are like, ‘I’m in shelter, I’m good now.’ Instead, they want to find stability and a space that they can call home.”

Lack of shelter availabilities, affordable housing

Lisa throws a cluster of twigs into a fire pit — a daily chore she does to survive. Embers ignite as she tosses each stick, flames growing briefly before dying down.

Her encampment is nestled along the Burnt Bridge Creek Trail. Lisa, who requested only her first name be used for privacy, became homeless about a month ago.

She doesn’t want to be living like this.

She wants to go stay at one of Share’s shelters, but last time she called, staff said there was a waitlist, Lisa said.

Housing experts often compare homelessness to a game of musical chairs — if there’s not enough housing or shelter beds for everyone, some people are going to be left out.

“We have housing that is unattainable,” Wonder said. “And we have a set number of shelter beds in the community, and we fill those shelter beds.”

The beds that are available usually fill within 24 hours, she said.

The Columbian spoke with staff from eight homeless shelters in Clark County with emergency shelter beds on Oct. 12. All others could not be reached. Seven spots were available at a youth shelter for 9- to 17-year-olds. One room with six beds was available for single women or a family.

Every other shelter was full.

Part of the reason Clark County’s shelters are so full is because there are limited affordable housing units for people moving out of shelters, said Adam Kravitz, executive director of Outsiders Inn.

“There’s no place to move folks to. There’s no housing,” he said.

Substances, mental health

Tim, who requested that only his first name be used for privacy, became depressed after he became homeless and started using drugs to cope with the harsh lifestyle he was unused to. “This life makes you,” he said.

He wants to go into a shelter, but he feels like he would have to stop doing drugs in order to stay at one.

Most shelters don’t have drug tests, but they also don’t allow drugs on their properties.

Mike Delay, a clinical supervisor at Columbia River Mental Health Services — an organization that can help people recover from substance abuse disorders — said most of his clients are homeless or experiencing housing instability.

Most often, his homeless clients aren’t staying in shelters — they live in encampments.

It’s not easy to recover from substance abuse disorders without help, especially with a fentanyl addiction, Delay said. The withdrawal symptoms can be severe.

“Imagine the worst flu you’ve ever had in your life, multiply it by 1,000 and then make it last for two weeks plus dysphoria,” Delay said.

“Every traumatic experience that you’ve been trying to avoid is very front and center in your brain.”

Dignity in choice

Even if she did get the opportunity to go, Lisa doesn’t know what to do with her camp and all her belongings.

Ideally, she would also like to stay with her boyfriend who lives with her at the encampment, but it’s much harder for couples to stay in shelters together. Many of Clark County’s shelters divide men, women and families.

“But sometimes you have to be apart to get better,” Lisa said.

In a Jack in the Box parking lot, Tim sat in a semicircle with a few of his friends. Not even an hour ago, the group had been swept from their encampment, which sits at a gore point by Interstate 205.

Tim said that the people he lives with are his family.

“We get together, someone brings food we all share … it feels like someone loves us, cares about us when we get together,” Tim said, who was sharing fries with a friend.

He said that he thinks he could get the same type of community in the shelter, but Tim doesn’t want to lose contact with his friends.

When Lisa was asked why she thinks other people might choose to live in the camp rather than seek out shelter beds, she said some people don’t want to abide by certain rules shelters have — like curfews and how much of your belongings you can have.

“Here you’re on your own time,” she said. “You don’t have to follow any rules except to respect each other.”

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Wonder said that congregate shelters especially, where people aren’t separated by rooms, can be challenging for people experiencing homelessness. Every person experiencing homelessness has their own experiences and trauma that can create barriers to moving indoors, she said.

“There is this dignity and empowerment that comes with that of getting to decide what that looks like on your terms,” Wonder said. “What moving toward stability looks like on your terms, as well as what that experience of homelessness or helplessness looks like on your terms.”

Lisa hopes housed people will remember to be kind to people whether they’re living outside or in shelters.

“We’re all human. We all deserve to be safe,” said Lisa.

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.

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