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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Work together to confront homelessness

The Columbian
Published: May 28, 2024, 6:03am

Homelessness is an urgent, persistent and obvious problem in our community, one that requires cooperation between governing bodies. Because of that, a decision last week by the Clark County Council is perplexing.

The city of Vancouver asked the county government for immediate assistance to help pay for a 150-bed homeless shelter. City officials have identified an available site (they have not yet revealed the location) and sought help in purchasing it. The concern is that a delay will result in the site being sold to another party.

Acquiring and building the shelter will cost approximately $16 million; operating costs would be $6 million to $7 million per year. The request is for the county to pay 30 percent of those combined costs. Clark County has approximately $23 million in mental health sales tax funds for 2024 and $19 million for 2025.

Rather than act with urgency or demonstrate an understanding of the crisis, county councilors voted against committing the funds. Instead, they will require the request to go through the typical process for considering funding, a process they have waived in other situations. Councilors Gary Medvigy, Karen Bowerman and Michelle Belkot voted to delay the request; Glen Yung and Sue Marshall voted in favor of immediate funding.

“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,” said Medvigy, the council chair. According to Columbian reporter Alexis Weisend, he said schools need more mental health counselors and he wants to ensure that the county jail has adequate funding.

Those are, indeed, important issues. But as anybody who has noticed homeless encampments throughout the county can attest, there is an urgent demand for shelter space. As Yung said, “When you find a place, you need to lock it down. Otherwise, it might walk away.”

Yung also noted that the council has skipped the lengthy review process for other funding requests: “The entire process is determined by the council. 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 governments generally are considered the lead agencies in dealing with housing and homelessness. In one example, RCW 36.32.415, passed in 1986, states: “A county may assist in the development or preservation of publicly or privately owned housing for persons of low income by providing loans or grants of general county funds … ” The law does not specifically mention homelessness, but it is not a stretch to apply it in this regard.

RCW 43.185C.160 puts the onus on county governments to develop a five-year homeless housing plan, although there is contradictory language in the 2018 legislation.

Despite the statutory and moral obligations facing county government, it is the city of Vancouver that has embraced the burden of reducing homelessness in the area. Primary among those efforts is outreach to unhoused people and the creation of four Safe Stay communities providing shelter.

But more is needed. Among other benefits, the proposed shelter would provide help for unhoused people who are exiting the hospital or exiting jail. It also would provide medication-assisted treatment for those with substance-use disorder.

Such assistance demands cooperation and commitment from elected officials at both the city and county levels. Shared investment is necessary for addressing an issue that impacts all residents of Clark County.