Opinion: ‘Where did our hope go?’

ClarkCountyToday.com, Editor Ken Vance

The problems facing our community in Clark County don’t seem to be getting better

Those of you who read the thoughts I share in this space on a weekly basis know that far too often my cultural references come from the many movies I’ve viewed over the years. As I stare at the arrival of my 56th birthday next month, my mood takes me back to one of my all-time favorites, The Big Chill.

The 1983 film, nominated for three Oscars, was about a group of seven former college friends who gather for a weekend reunion at a South Carolina winter home after the funeral of a member of their own inner circle who had just committed suicide.

The opening scene of the movie was the funeral. One element of that opening scene was a statement about hope made by the minister presiding over the service. “Are not the satisfactions of being a good man among our common men great enough to sustain us anymore? Where did Alex’s hope go?’’

Jeff Goldblum played one of the seven main characters, who first established a bond at the University of Michigan many years before. Goldblum portrayed a magazine writer, who in a scene soon after the funeral, was on the phone bargaining with his editor for a schedule change that would allow him to stay the weekend with his old friends rather than to immediately fly off to cover an assigned story. Goldblum’s character, Michael, pitched a better story to his editor — one about “suicide, despair, where did our hope go?’’

The reason these questions about hope are on my mind today is the result of some things that we’ve been covering in the news lately. I wouldn’t say they’ve made me lose hope, but they’ve certainly left me discouraged.

ClarkCountyToday.com reporter Chris Brown and photographer/videographer Mike Schultz have done some terrific work recently on a series of stories about homelessness in Vancouver, specifically the establishment of the Homeless Navigation Center, operated by Share. Here is a link the third story in the series, which includes links to the first two stories:

The details of what’s going on at and around this facility have been eye-opening to me. Essentially, the folks operating the facility are trying to help people who seriously need help but the entire operation is existing at the peril of the neighboring homes, businesses and citizens. But, it’s obviously not the sole reason I’m discouraged, that I’m struggling to find hope. We’ve had other stories on the homeless crisis in Clark County. I also drive past homeless members of our community each and every day and am often encountered by them asking for help, as I’m sure you are as well.

I’m going to be upfront with you. This is not going to be a column that provides answers to this crisis, to my discouragement, to my lack of hope. Quite frankly, I don’t understand. I’m not an economist, but our nation’s economy is thriving according to many. Unemployment rates are at a 50-year low. I know we have a housing crisis, it seems it’s more difficult to own or even rent a home, than before. But, I don’t know why that’s the case.

I remember growing up in a country where if you had serious problems, or issues, you had friends or family members there to help you get back on your feet again. I have great compassion and understanding for those who experience bad times. We all make mistakes. We all make decisions that we eventually pay a steep price for. But, my experiences have always been those dark times, they don’t last forever. But, I feel like that premise or context is slipping away.

There are subjects who have participated in our recent stories who give me hope that they are in just a temporary crisis. They appear to have the skills, the desire, the qualities to improve their situation and get, metaphorically, back on their feet. But, I will be honest with you, they seem to be the exception, not the rule.

The amount of people with mental illness, anxiety, addiction and depression issues that I have come in contact with in recent years astonishes me. And, the amount of those people who have little or no success at improving their individual situation is exponentially even more amazing to me.

As a society, as a community, what are we left to do when people won’t help themselves and won’t accept the help we try to offer them? I had a friend several years ago who drifted off the grid. When I met him, he was a fully-functioning member of society, gainfully employed, made a good home for him and his son, had a healthy relationship with his other family members. But, I watched as his life slowly fell apart. He had hidden a drug addiction from me for I don’t know how long and then his mental health began to deteriorate until he lost his job, his home, custody of his son, interaction with his family … I lost contact with him a couple of years ago and I have no idea where he is today. I tried to help along the way, but I just couldn’t slow down his descent into hell, let alone prevent it. He didn’t even seem to want my help and he certainly never asked for it. In fact, on the many occasions I offered help, I had to practically force resources and assistance on him before he would grudgingly accept it.

It was revealed this week that the members of the Correction Facility Advisory Commission, tasked with evaluating options to replace the Clark County Jail, are struggling mightily to come up with a recommendation for the Clark County Council. What kind of a jail do we need? How many beds? What kind of resources should the jail provide? What philosophy should drive the operation of the jail? No one seems to have an answer. I know nobody wants to raise their hands to pay for it.

Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins sat down with ClarkCountyToday.com in April and one of the issues he discussed was the task of determining what to do about the jail:

I agree with Atkins that “the jail is not a place for people with mental illness; it’s not a place for the homeless who commit misdemeanors but there is no place else to go.’’ But, our series of stories about the Homeless Navigation Center portray that facility not to be the answer either, so the problem just keeps growing and growing.

Like it or not, this is a problem that we all face. I agree with Atkins that “it’s important that a community takes care of its people.’’ But, how do we do that when those people won’t take care of themselves or participate in the help they need? I certainly don’t believe in a never-ending extension of handouts that don’t result in any rehabilitation.

Like I said, I’m discouraged. But, I’m hopeful that our stories have contributed to more conversations about this crisis in our community.

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About The Author

Ken Vance got his start in the newspaper industry in 1987 as a reporter at The Columbian Newspaper in Vancouver. Vance graduated from Stevenson High School in Stevenson, WA, and attended Clark College in Vancouver. He worked for The Columbian from 1987-2001. He was most recently a staff member of The Reflector Newspaper in Battle Ground, where he served as editor since 2010 and reporter since 2007. Vance’s work in the newspaper industry has won him multiple awards, including a first place award from the Society of Professional Journalists for in-depth reporting.

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