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Residents, nonprofits, law enforcement, businesses focus on solutions along Fourth Plain corridor

Forum hosted by Columbia River Mental Health Services discusses efforts to deal with rising homelessness, fentanyl use

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: March 19, 2024, 6:05am
6 Photos
Motorists drive along the Fourth Plain corridor Monday afternoon.
Motorists drive along the Fourth Plain corridor Monday afternoon. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Over the four years Leanne Zink has worked in an office off Vancouver’s East Fourth Plain Boulevard, she has watched homelessness and drug problems worsen nearby. She must frequently call 911 to get help for those she finds passed out in front of her office. She now carries overdose-reversal medication with her.

“It used to make me really mad when people were doing drugs outside the office,” said Zink, who works for Vancouver Intergroup Alcoholics Anonymous. “Now, I want to help them.”

Others who live and work along the Fourth Plain corridor are also looking for solutions. They shared their observations at a forum Friday hosted by Columbia River Mental Health Services at Fourth Plain Commons. Residents had a chance to ask law enforcement, Columbia River Mental Health Services and city staff what’s being done to help people along the corridor amid rising fentanyl use and homelessness.

“Over the last several years, we’ve seen profound change on Fourth Plain,” said Dr. Kevin Fischer, chief medical officer at Columbia River Mental Health Services, itself on Fourth Plain. “It has changed (in) ways that show up on business parking lots and in our housing and on sidewalks.”

The foil and straws used to smoke fentanyl are commonly found around Fourth Plain, as well as other areas of Vancouver. They’ve almost entirely replaced the needles people might find for heroin use when that was the drug plaguing Clark County.

“There’s no going back to five years ago. This is the new normal until something stronger replaces fentanyl,” Fischer said.

Fentanyl drove up overdoses 500 percent in Clark County between 2018 and 2022, according to Columbia River Mental Health Services.

Drug use at parks is scaring families, said Gabriela Mendoza Ewing, executive director of Hispanic Disability Support Southwest Washington, who lives and works on the corridor. Recently, she and her co-workers panicked when they heard gunshots go off down the street.

“I see some members of the community more concerned about safety,” Mendoza Ewing said. “I see a growing need for mental health and a lack of mental health services.”

In response, Columbia River Mental Health Services in October launched a behavioral health team as an alternative to police response for those in crisis along the Fourth Plain corridor. The team arrives in a van with water, snacks and blankets, and then connects those in need with resources.

Police still respond to calls along Fourth Plain. Vancouver police Officer Jeremy Vanroyce said about 4.5 percent of the city’s crimes occur in the corridor. In addition, residents say homelessness — which increased by 43 percent between 2021 and 2022 in Clark County — has become highly visible along Fourth Plain.

Jamie Spinelli, homeless response manager for the city of Vancouver, said the city is helping people on the Fourth Plain corridor through the Homeless Assistance and Resources Team. But not enough preventive measures, including rental assistance, are in place to keep people from falling into homelessness, she said.

Get Help

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance-use crisis along the Fourth Plain corridor, call Columbia River Mental Health Services’ behavioral health response team at 360-993-3166.

If you are struggling with drug addiction, call Columbia River Mental Health Services at 360-993-3000 to start a treatment plan or visit NorthStar Clinic from 7 a.m. to noon Mondays through Fridays at 7105 N.E. 40th St., Vancouver.

People who need housing and shelter assistance should call Council for the Homeless’ Housing Hotline at 360-695-9677, which operates 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on holidays and weekends.

“We have more need than we have resources available,” Spinelli said.

Fischer said people in the community should not lose hope, even though times are tough. He pointed to Vancouver Public Schools programs that focus on prevention by addressing the issues that can turn people to drugs in the first place, such as trauma and addiction in their homes.

With the opening of Columbia River Mental Health Services’ new NorthStar Clinic, more drug treatment services than ever are available in Vancouver. Residents can access naloxone — an opioid reversal medication — for free at Recovery Cafe on Fourth Plain Boulevard.

Meanwhile, although Vancouver Intergroup Alcoholics Anonymous considered moving its office, it decided to stay put, Zink said. She said she hopes to help more people now that the office is staying, whether it’s inside the office or outside in the parking lot.

She’s happy the community is focusing on helping people, both those in crisis and their neighbors.

“They’re actually looking for solutions to the problem,” Zink said.

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.