The start of construction on the next Safe Stay site in Vancouver calls to mind the evolution of how Americans care for their destitute.
The site, at 415 W. 11th St. in the downtown area, will follow the model of Safe Stay communities in the North Image neighborhood and along Fourth Plain Boulevard. It is expected to have 20 modular pallet shelters for up to 40 residents and a mandated 1,000-foot camping ban. Unlike the other locations, it will include shower facilities for residents.
The idea is to provide stability for unhoused people as a transition toward permanent housing. The downtown location has drawn pushback from some local residents and business owners, who worry about public safety in the neighborhood. Similar concerns have been raised about a proposed fourth site at 4611 Main St., next to Interstate 5 near Kiggins Bowl.
The concerns are understandable as city officials weigh the need to provide temporary housing against the needs of existing neighborhoods. We’re guessing that most Vancouver residents are weary of seeing tent communities along roadways and on public lands, but few of those residents would welcome a Safe Stay facility next door.
We are encouraged, however, by reports from the Vancouver Police Department. Since the initial Safe Stay community opened in late 2021, officials have routinely reported a decline in police calls to areas surrounding the facilities.
All of which reflects vast changes in how the United States treats the homeless. A century ago, there was no Social Security and few public services for individuals or families who fell on hard times. The response typically was a county “poor farm,” where residents would live and work at a compound designed to be self-sustaining.
In Clark County, what is now the 78th Street Heritage Farm was a poor farm from the 1870s to 1943. In Oregon’s Multnomah County, what is now McMenamins Edgefield – a popular hotel, concert, restaurant and event facility – was a poor farm from 1911 until the mid-20th century.
While some might view a revival of poor farms as a solution for a growing homeless population, the institutions were not a panacea. As History.com writes about residents of the typical facility: “They lived in workhouses, bare bones facilities designed to make poverty seem even less attractive. In these facilities, poor people ate thrifty, unpalatable food, slept in crowded, often unsanitary conditions, and were put to work breaking stones, crushing bones, spinning cloth or doing domestic labor, among other jobs.”
And as a report from Macalester College in Minnesota puts it: “They subjected people to a regulated way of life without necessarily providing them with the skills, training, or support that would allow them to live independently.”
In other words, poor farms were akin to prisons. But being poor in the United States is not a criminal offense.
In truth, poor farms only serve to remove the issue of homelessness from the public eye, allowing the rest of us to pretend it doesn’t exist rather than addressing the underlying systemic and personal issues that lead to people being unhoused.
To be sure, there is not a broad groundswell of support for bringing back asylums for people who would otherwise be homeless. But there are reasonable discussions about how to best address the issue and how to allow all residents to live with dignity.
Until we hear of a better idea, it seems that Vancouver’s Safe Stay communities are a reasonable and efficient approach.