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News / Clark County News

Site of homeless facility is uncertain but 150-bed ‘shelter is happening’ regardless, city of Vancouver says

The public will have an opportunity to voice any concerns or suggestions before any purchase is made

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: June 22, 2024, 6:03am
4 Photos
Tents line the side of the road along West 11th Street in downtown Vancouver. A so-called bridge shelter in the city will hold up to 150 people experiencing homelessness.
Tents line the side of the road along West 11th Street in downtown Vancouver. A so-called bridge shelter in the city will hold up to 150 people experiencing homelessness. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

In the next year or so, the city of Vancouver will create a shelter with 150 beds for people experiencing homelessness — that’s not up for debate when people are dying in the street, city officials say.

“The shelter is happening,” said Jamie Spinelli, homeless response manager for the city.

But the city is running into a few difficulties trying to plan for possibly the largest publicly funded shelter ever created in Clark County, including funding the project amid a $43 million deficit and concerns from the public over where it will be located.

However, city staff say the project they call a bridge shelter will be funded using only new sources of revenue, and the location is not being kept secret to curtail public ire; they just don’t want the price to go up by revealing that the city is interested in acquiring a piece of land.

The public will have an opportunity to voice any concerns or suggestions about the potential site before the city buys the property, City Manager Eric Holmes said. City staff expect backlash wherever the shelter ends up.

“No matter where we go, there’s not a single place to put a facility that serves unhoused individuals where people won’t have concerns,” Holmes said.

What exactly is a bridge shelter?

In 2021, San Diego faced a problem similar to Vancouver’s: Many people were living outside, addicted to drugs, struggling with their mental health, and resistant to help or unable to find it.

So the San Diego Housing Commission approved a 325-bed temporary shelter called a bridge shelter. The name comes from its mission, to bridge the gap between homeless and housed. There, people could treat their drug addiction and receive help with mental health treatment and finding housing.

The man who helped create that project was commissioned by the city of Vancouver to produce an assessment on how Vancouver was servicing its unhoused population. His main suggestion for improvement was a 150-bed shelter with wraparound services.

In the spring of 2021, key people working in homelessness services in Vancouver flew to San Diego to learn about the bridge shelter. Spinelli said she wanted to see how San Diego manages such a large number of people in a shelter.

Congregate shelters aren’t her favorite form of shelter, Spinelli said, but Vancouver’s current shelters don’t have enough beds for everyone who wants them. She’s watched the death toll from homelessness tick up each year and knows how dangerous living outside can be.

When extreme cold weather hit last winter, emergency shelters struggled to take in everyone who needed warmth. And on any given day, there are few beds available, if any, in Clark County’s shelters for the thousands living outside, The Columbian has found.

Since 2022, more than 100 people have died while homeless in Clark County, according to the city and nonprofits that keep count. Many of those deaths have been due to overdoses from fentanyl — the most prolific and deadly illicit drug on Vancouver’s streets.

Vancouver’s shelter will have on-site medication-assisted drug treatment, which has proven the most effective way to get people off of fentanyl, which can cause insufferable withdrawal symptoms.

“Immediate access to treatment is … our best shot at folks getting the help that they need to get off of (fentanyl). Having that program embedded in the shelter, that’s just what makes sense,” Spinelli said.

How will a $16 million shelter be funded amid a deficit?

The bridge shelter was a key piece of the city’s plan to address homelessness when it declared a civil emergency in November.

For the first time in about a decade, the city of Vancouver will be forced to reduce spending to help cover the city’s projected $43 million general fund deficit for the 2025-26 budget.

“I don’t want to partner in something that would make that situation even worse,” Clark County Council Chair Gary Medvigy said at a meeting after the city requested help with funding.

But the bridge shelter won’t take away funds from other city services, Holmes said. The shelter will be funded entirely from new revenue (possibly a 0.001 percent business and occupation tax on retailers).

The city is also hoping to receive a third of the bridge shelter’s funds from the county’s mental health sales tax. That’s been a slower process than expected, as the project is going through a lengthy committee process with other funding requests.

But Holmes said the delay has not put the property acquisition at risk so far.

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The bridge shelter is one of the city’s more expensive efforts to address homelessness. The city’s Safe Stays, transitional shelter communities with 20 hut-like tiny homes, cost about $550,000 to create and about $470,000 a year to operate and maintain.

The bridge shelter will cost an estimated $16 million to acquire and build, as well as another $6 million to $7 million per year to operate.

The difference in cost is due to a greater number of beds, on-site drug-addiction treatment and property-acquisition costs. Most of the land the Safe Stays are on was donated or government-owned.

“The city does not own a property that is conducive to something like this (bridge shelter), so it would mean property acquisition,” Spinelli said. “Property acquisition itself is expensive.”

Spinelli said many people want the shelter built on the edge of town, away from businesses and out of sight.

“That’s not what we’re interested in, because we want to build community, not separate them,” Spinelli said. “The closer in you go, it is just true that the property is going to be more expensive.”

There are further expenses that add to the city’s estimated cost, such as food, 24-hour staffing, plumbing and maintenance.

“I think (the cost) probably sounds shocking to people, but if you look at other shelter costs and then add on the fact that we’re doing treatment, I don’t think it’s that crazy,” Spinelli said.

The shelter will also likely save the city money in the long run, in addition to potentially saving lives, Spinelli said. Vancouver’s large number of people living outside means routine camp cleanups, police time issuing camping citations, low-level crimes leading to jail stays, and frequent calls for emergency services.

“It’s expensive leaving people outside,” Spinelli said.

Why hasn’t the city announced the location?

City staff have identified a location for the bridge shelter but aren’t ready to share it. That’s caused some concern among county councilors as they consider whether to contribute money to the project.

“One of the things that you mentioned was, you will go through with the shelter … unless there was some defect with the property, not based on community feedback. I think that’s what a lot of constituents have an issue with,” Clark County Councilor Michelle Belkot said at a recent meeting.

“Because I’ve been told by some city constituents that there are limitations on public comments, and they also feel that there’s a lack of transparency. When they’ve asked about where the location of the shelter is, and they can’t get a straight answer out of the city, themselves.”

The city’s third Safe Stay in downtown Vancouver drew criticism from neighbors in 2022 when a vacant downtown lot was selected as a candidate site, though many now say the community is quiet and residents mostly keep to themselves.

Once negotiations conclude and an initial agreement is struck, the city can announce the potential location and begin public engagement, so residents can voice concerns or suggestions. The city council will decide whether to make the final purchase of the site after that public process, Holmes said.

City staff will be seeking comments about the property that would make it infeasible as a shelter site or suggestions for improvements to the bridge shelter — not whether people do or do not want a shelter.

“We’re taking it on because there’s truly an emergency happening,” Holmes said.

Although city staff originally projected that the shelter would open by the end of 2024, Holmes said it will open in the summer of 2025 at the earliest.

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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.