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News / Clark County News

‘They need more than rent’: Support at Safe Stay communities helps residents address problems, exit cycle of homelessness

Some Columbian readers have questioned costs of Vancouver's Safe Stay homeless shelters

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: May 17, 2024, 6:07am
4 Photos
Andrew Reed of City Electric Co., left, helps Christian Trokey-Backman of Pallet unload roofs for the third Safe Stay community in downtown Vancouver on Nov. 7. The city approved an emergency declaration for homelessness Nov. 6.
Andrew Reed of City Electric Co., left, helps Christian Trokey-Backman of Pallet unload roofs for the third Safe Stay community in downtown Vancouver on Nov. 7. The city approved an emergency declaration for homelessness Nov. 6. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Several readers have contacted The Columbian to ask how much it costs to house someone at one of Vancouver’s four Safe Stay homeless shelters, each of which comprises 20 huts surrounded by a fence. Wouldn’t it be cheaper, they ask, to just pay each person’s rent?

True, the ongoing cost of the average hut in a Safe Stay is $1,956 a month — more than the average cost of apartment rent in Vancouver, according to estimates from listing sites. Acquiring and preparing each site costs about as much as the average house in Vancouver — $548,609.

But city staff say Safe Stays are the best response to Vancouver’s chronic homelessness problem because they provide support beyond just a roof over people’s heads.

“The argument that it would be cheaper to pay their rent is just not taking into account that they need more than rent,” said Jamie Spinelli, Vancouver’s homeless response manager.

The city declared homelessness to be a civil emergency in November in large part because people are staying homeless longer than ever, officials said. In 2018, 60 people were homeless for more than a year, according to the Point in Time Count, a federal effort to track the number of homeless people. In 2022, that number jumped to 223.

Moving directly from the street into housing might be a good option for some. But for others, that’s just setting them up to end up back on the street, Spinelli said. Many of the homeless people she encounters have been living on the street for years and struggle with addiction or mental health issues.

Spinelli said she’s met people who have cycled in and out of housing, receiving financial assistance with rent only to become evicted and homeless again when that help ends. Others bring their addiction into housing only to die alone from an overdose.

“No one wants people to move in and die,” she said.

The Safe Stays are an effort to help homeless people address their problems — whether they need help with their addiction, mental illness, employment or financial skills — before they get into housing so they can stay in that housing over the long term, Spinelli said.

Each Safe Stay has 20 units manufactured by the Everett company Pallet. And each of the Pallet sleeping shelters is 70 square feet and has room for two people. The privacy allowed in Safe Stay shelters draws interest from people who may not feel comfortable going to congregate shelters, Spinelli said.

“There are segments of the homeless population that kind of shelter does not work well for,” Spinelli said.

For example, men are separated from women and children in congregate shelters. Spinelli said the Safe Stays are the first shelters in Vancouver where couples can live together. The huts also can make LBGTQ+ people feel safer, she said.

A study earlier this year by Portland State University found that people living in pallet shelter communities are more likely to exit into housing than people in congregate shelters.

The Safe Stay shelters, as the name implies, are meant to be a safe place to stay while waiting for housing. They provide daily meals and support from people who have been through similar experiences, Spinelli said.

That’s part of the reason it costs more than an apartment to operate a single pallet shelter each month, said Brian Norris. He’s the executive director of the nonprofit Live Love Outreach, which runs the city’s second Safe Stay called Hope Village, which opened in April 2022.

The nonprofit has a contract with the city for $528,154 to run Hope Village for a second year.

He said the nonprofit uses that money to staff the communities 24/7, pay caseworkers who help people address their various issues and provide meals. The funds also pay for laundry cards, bus passes, bathroom supplies and cleaning products.

Although he understands why some people would rather the money for Safe Stays go toward rent, Norris said people who have lived on the streets for years often lose the life skills necessary for consistently paying rent.

“I get the benefit of it — getting roofs over people’s heads — but if there’s no accountability, if there’s no structure, then you’re just kind of enabling people to continue that lifestyle,” Norris said. “We’re teaching those skills.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with the correct monthly estimate of a Pallet shelter.

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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.