Members of Vancouver City Council hear new plan on homelessness

The plan calls for funding of an 80-bed temporary shelter

VANCOUVER — It’s been just four months since Jackie St. Louis arrived from Seattle to take over as the first homeless resource manager for the city of Vancouver.

His hiring came a couple months into the firestorm surrounding the Vancouver Navigation Center near Fourth Plain and Grand, where neighbors bombarded city officials with complaints over rising crime, vagrancy, drug use, and public indecency.

The Vancouver Navigation Center on Grand Blvd near Fourth Plain has been a flashpoint for people upset about homelessness in Vancouver. Photo by Mike Schultz
The Vancouver Navigation Center on Grand Blvd near Fourth Plain has been a flashpoint for people upset about homelessness in Vancouver. Photo by Mike Schultz

The city was also notified in early November that homeless nonprofit Share would no longer operate a day shelter out of the Navigation Center. That decision came on the heels of a report by Alpha Project, a San Diego nonprofit, critical of Share and their operation of the day center.

A request for proposals is being finalized to hopefully bring in a new operator for the day center, but City Manager Eric Holmes said there is no chance they’ll be on board by the time Share leaves at the end of January. The goal is for the city to run the center in a bridge capacity until a new operator can be brought in.

The report by Alpha Project also urged the building of a temporary “bridge shelter” with at least 150 beds for single adults, along with the formation of a Homeless Assistance and Resource Team (HART), with the goal of connecting with people experiencing homelessness on the ground level.

In his first report to Vancouver City Council during a work session this week, St. Louis outlined his goals to begin addressing gaps in the city’s existing Continuum of Care (CoC) approach to homelessness.

“What is not addressed in the homeless action plan is the adverse community effects of homelessness,” noted St. Louis, “such as the accumulation of trash, and serious debris associated with encampments.”

In the four months since coming to the city, St. Louis said he has met with numerous homeless outreach groups and members of the community, to understand the scope of the problem and what is being done to address it on numerous fronts. One thing he has heard repeatedly, which agrees with the Alpha Project evaluation, is that the city needs to do more to address the immediate needs of those who are unsheltered.

“People who are living chronically homeless on the streets experience high rates of chronic illness, behavioral health issues, and even death,” St. Louis noted. “Quite simply, there are more people who need the resources than the resources which are available to them.”

In 2018, over $61 million was spent on affordable housing and homelessness in Clark County. Vancouver alone spent over $9.2 million. 

$4.8 million was spent on permanent and transitional housing, with another $1.98 million on rental assistance. The next largest amount was administration of homeless services ($575,510), followed by emergency shelters ($465,000). The Navigation Center cost the city $200,000 in 2018, though that cost will likely be much higher in 2020 with the city seeking a new operator for the day center, as well as funding more oversight of things in and around the facility.

While St. Louis said the city is wise to fund affordable housing and rental assistance, more needs to be done to address those who fall in the middle.

“In Vancouver, if you are homeless and seeking shelter, without the means to acquire it on your own, you are generally expected to access it through a coordinated entry,” said St. Louis. “While it allows for orderly entry to the response system, it can also add to the frustration of some clients and outreach workers, given the limitations of shelter beds and housing to help people who are willing to move from the streets and encampments.” 

But fixing those shortfalls won’t come cheap. While St. Louis said he estimates they can hire at least the key personnel for HART on the existing budget, along with securing a new operator for the Day Center, an 80-bed transitional facility is estimated to cost $800,000 to open inside the Navigation Center, and another $2 million annually to operate.

If that initial bridge shelter appears to be functioning well, a second one could be built at another location, said St. Louis, provided the community buys into the idea. The estimate to open that shelter is $5 million, in addition to another $2 million operating cost.

As part of bringing members of the community on board when a shelter is proposed, St. Louis said the city needs to do a better job of providing a resource for residents to express concerns and receive immediate responses.

“I believe that people in the community should have a go-to for homelessness related concerns,” he said. “Not solely for the issue of getting people off of my lawn, or my backyard, but also connecting them to resources.”

The council will hold a follow-up work session at is Dec. 16 meeting to look at potential funding sources for shelter spaces, including possibly realigning some of the Affordable Housing Fund dollars. But St. Louis stressed that the city needs to continue its focus on housing affordability and rental assistance to keep as many people as possible from falling into homelessness, and to increase the opportunity for people to move from temporary shelter into something more permanent.

“We don’t want to solely develop and build shelter for the purpose of it being there and having folks warehoused, and not having the outcomes that we so desire,” he said. “This is not a one or the other conversation. We need housing as much as we need shelter.”

St. Louis also proposed $15,000 to help finance Winter overflow shelters from November through March, coordinated with the Council for the Homeless.

The plan would also form system alignment and advisory groups, made up of Clark County representatives, the city of Vancouver, nonprofit leadership, lived-experience representation, and private funding sources.

That group, said St. Louis, would be tasked with getting groups addressing homelessness outside of the government to share what is working and not working for them, so that all sides can get on the same page when it comes to the issue.

“Our responses have to be data-driven,” he told the council. “We have to be able to collect and share data, and the data collection and our metrics have to be consistent across programs and organizations, and that has to inform the decisions that we’re making.”

Holmes said a public hearing on St. Louis’ proposal would come before the council likely before the end of the year. The city is also working with officials from Clark County on a joint meeting, along with Council for the Homeless, set tentatively for sometime in March.

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