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News / Clark County News

Clark County Council rejects quick action to help Vancouver pay for 150-bed homeless shelter

County will require city to go through same process as other projects requesting funds

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: May 24, 2024, 8:05am

The Clark County Council rejected Vancouver’s request for quick help to pay for a 150-bed homeless shelter.

The shelter is a crucial part of the city’s plan to address homelessness since declaring a civil emergency in November. City officials have identified a location for the shelter, although they won’t yet publicly say where it is. To buy it, the city needs help.

City Manager Eric Holmes asked the county to commit money from the county’s mental health sales tax, forgoing the county’s usual, more lengthy process so the city can act quickly before the opportunity slips away. It’s something the county has done for other agencies in recent years.

Acquiring and building the shelter will cost about $16 million. Operating it will take another $6 million to $7 million per year. The city wants the county to pay for 30 percent of those combined costs — a maximum of $6 million up front and about $2 million a year after that.

Despite the city’s attempts to expedite the project, originally slated to open by the end of 2024, the Clark County Council on Wednesday voted against committing the money. The county will instead require the city to go through the same process as other projects requesting the funds.

County Council Chair Gary Medvigy said the county’s schools need more mental health counselors, and he wants to ensure the jail has enough funding. The county has about $23 million in mental health sales tax funds for 2024 and about $19 million for 2025.

“I think there’s a real possibility if all of this is moving forward, that we could possibly exceed a budget capacity of that front,” Medvigy said.

The project may still receive money from the county, but it must be considered by a county advisory board that evaluates requests for money generated by the mental health sales tax.

County councilors said the process will be accelerated to help the city quickly acquire the property before someone else scoops it up.

At the Wednesday meeting, Clark County Councilor Glen Yung tried to convince his colleagues to approve the funding right then.

“When you find a place, you need to lock it down, otherwise it might walk away,” he said.

Yung said the council had already approved projects outside of the normal advisory-board process.

In February, the Clark County Council approved about $1.85 million of mental health sales tax funds for Council for the Homeless’ motel voucher program. In 2022, the council approved using $2 million in funds for Vancouver Housing Authority’s supportive housing project called Lincoln Place II.

“The entire process is determined by the council,” Yung said. “So we are able to change that at any moment. We are able to make modifications. We are able to make emergency or quick decisions.”

County Councilor Sue Marshall also voted to commit funds for the land acquisition and have the request for operational expenses go through the advisory board later. Councilors Medvigy, Michelle Belkot and Karen Bowerman voted against that motion.

Why the rush?

The city of Vancouver in November declared homelessness to be a civil emergency so officials could bypass some of the bureaucratic red tape that can slow down projects.

The rising use of fentanyl and deaths among homeless people motivated the declaration, city officials said. Last year, 45 homeless people died in Clark County.

Clark County does not have enough shelter beds for all the people who need them. According to a 2018 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals, municipalities cannot enforce camping bans if they don’t have shelter beds available. (That may change, depending on the outcome of a Grants Pass, Ore., case before the U.S. Supreme Court).

The city’s response to homelessness hinges on the planned 150-bed shelter. The shelter would offer medical respite care, which officials say the county desperately needs for people without homes exiting the hospital, and a place for people exiting jail without a home.

The bridge shelter would have wrap-around services, according to Holmes’ letter, including on-site medication-assisted treatment for those with substance-use disorder, as well as other needed support.

Officials anticipate the shelter will operate for a decade.

Funneling funds

Medvigy said he is supportive of the shelter but has concerns about funding an initiative in Vancouver when the funds are collected throughout the entire county.

“I don’t want the county … to be just funneling our money to Vancouver. I want to be a true partner,” he said.

Although 78 percent of Clark County’s homeless population is in Vancouver, almost half of people living on the street in Vancouver became homeless outside the city, according to Vancouver’s Homeless Assistance and Resources Team.

Vancouver has the most shelter and resources for homeless people in Clark County. In fact, only two of the county’s shelters are located outside of Vancouver’s city limits.

Yung said the bridge shelter would fill a “huge gap” in the community.

“This is a great opportunity for us to have an entire community-led initiative — to kind of crush this barrier we’ve had between, ‘You guys are doing this, and we’re doing that,’ to work together,” he said.

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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.

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