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News / Clark County News

Evicted into the cold: Disabled Vancouver woman, son find selves on street, told no help available

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: March 23, 2024, 6:03am
6 Photos
An eviction notice hangs on the door of Rhonda Keith and Corey Elvetici&rsquo;s former apartment.
An eviction notice hangs on the door of Rhonda Keith and Corey Elvetici’s former apartment. (Alexis Weisend/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Corey Elvetici was homeless in Virginia when he heard his mother, who lived in Vancouver, lost her housing. Although he couldn’t give her money for an apartment, he moved to Vancouver five years ago so she wouldn’t experience homelessness alone.

Helping her wasn’t as simple as pitching a tent and showing his mom, Rhonda Keith, how to cook food outdoors. Keith’s neck is permanently twisted down and to the left after an injury she suffered lifting a patient when she was working as a nurse in Virginia. She needs assistance with everyday activities. In the camp where the pair settled in east Vancouver, others also helped Keith.

Then, in August, after years on the street, Elvetici, 31, and Keith, 59, landed housing with help from a Lifeline Connections caseworker. They moved into Aspenridge Apartments, about a mile and a half away from their former camp.

I planned to write a story about the challenges of caregiving while homeless, so Elvetici invited me to interview them. When I arrived at their apartment, I ended up with a different story entirely. I observed the aftermath of an eviction during severely cold weather — and the limits of Clark County’s emergency shelter system.

As I approached the front door of Elvetici and Keith’s apartment March 4, I noticed a white piece of paper on the front door. Upon closer inspection, I saw it was an eviction notice.

Clark County had the highest per capita rate of eviction filings of any county in Washington in 2023, when one out of every 308 people received an eviction summons.

When I realized that Elvetici and Keith had been evicted, I was unsure of what to do. So I walked back to my car and drove out of the parking lot. That’s when I saw a pile of things by the road — bedding balanced on stacked furniture, bags hung on a vacuum cleaner and an animal-print rug draped over boxes.

I pulled over, turned on my car’s hazard lights and tentatively walked up to the pile.

“Corey?” I asked.

A woman’s voice answered: “He’s right here.”

Tabby Mullins, Elvetici’s girlfriend of two years, peeked out from underneath the rug. Her light green eyes were smudged with mascara and tear-streaked, and a fantasy novel lay open in her lap.

Keith sat on a box as she held her Pomeranian mix, Mia. The dog yapped a warning at me.

Elvetici was hunched over and exhausted after moving what possessions he could to the sidewalk at 5 a.m. before a Clark County sheriff’s deputy arrived to remove them from the apartment. He mumbled a polite greeting.

Mullins pulled up a chair for me, and I ducked under the makeshift shelter to sit with them.

Keith explained that, despite having a housing voucher, she and her son had fallen behind on rent. They showed up for court via Zoom and lost their case, as most of the other tenants likely did that day. (More than half of eviction filings in Clark County since 2022 have ended in a court-ordered eviction, according to court records.)

They owe Avenue 5, the owner of Aspenridge Apartments, more than $3,200, including $800 for the price of attorneys to evict them.

That seemed unfathomable for them to pay off any time soon. They didn’t even have food and water with them.

“It’s so frustrating because she doesn’t deserve this at all,” Mullins said of Keith.

Mullins, who lived in her van up until two weeks ago when it was towed, used to live in the camp with Keith. People from the camp, including Mullins, often came over to the apartment to help Keith as they did when she lived with them under the offramp, taking out her trash, doing her laundry, washing her dishes and brushing her hair.

On the street, people often help each other survive, but what they did for Keith went beyond camp etiquette. They worked together as a community to help Keith because they genuinely care about her, Mullins said.

Although she had people with her, it wasn’t safe for someone as vulnerable as Keith to sleep outdoors on that cold March night. Council for the Homeless had just issued a severe weather alert three hours earlier, and temperatures were expected to drop to 32 degrees.

Keith and Elvetici sat on hold with Council for the Homeless’ housing hotline for five minutes before someone answered.

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“There’s no shelter available tonight,” the operator said.

When asked whether an older woman with a disability could receive a motel voucher, the operator said none were available.

“All this funding and no shelter?” Mullins said after the call.

Since 2017, the city of Vancouver has spent almost $40 million on affordable-housing development and preservation, temporary shelters, homelessness prevention, and rental and homeownership assistance through its Affordable Housing Fund levy.

The county has also directed millions of dollars to homeless services. In 2021, the Clark County Council devoted $15.5 million in federal funds toward expanding shelters, rental assistance and vouchers for motel rooms.

And yet, people are falling faster into homelessness than Clark County can catch them. About 9,000 people are believed to be homeless here, an increase of 43 percent between 2021 and 2022. That’s about one in every 56 people.

Keith and Elvetici were planning to either spend the night right there, on the sidewalk, or in the parking lot of a nearby church. I asked where they would use the restroom if they slept on the sidewalk. Mullins paused and looked away from me.

“Behind the dumpster,” she said.

A truck swerved close to the sidewalk before whizzing by, honking twice. And then, heavy and rain soaked, the rug collapsed on everyone’s heads. Elvetici and I caught the rug above Keith and tried propping it back up with wood, which took several minutes. Once it was steady, I looked up to see Mullins crying, hard and silent.

We sat back down under the carpet. A minute or so later, a car slowed down beside the pile. Someone in a blue SUV pointed a phone at us and seemed to be taking photos. Mia barked at the car before it pulled away.

•••

I headed back to The Columbian’s newsroom, where I emailed Sunny Wonder, deputy director of Council for the Homeless, and explained what I had witnessed in front of Aspenridge Apartments. Why were there no shelter beds or motel vouchers available that night, given the severe weather alert?

The operator should have connected Keith and Elvetici with an outreach team if there was no shelter, Wonder said in an email. Wonder sent a team to find them. Keith and Elvetici had mentally prepared themselves to spend the night under the carpet, but they didn’t have to. Late in the evening, the outreach team arrived and gave them a motel voucher.

Mullins stayed the night outside with their possessions, walking up and down the block to stay warm, until the police informed her she had to move. Caseworkers from the nonprofit Recovery Cafe helped Mullins move to the motel Tuesday evening.

After that, I lost contact with them.

Eventually, their experience will be funneled into a report with hundreds of others, tears and sidewalk grime transformed into mundane graphs and figures.

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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