The final Vancouver City Council meeting of the year saw city leaders mull $475,412 worth of grants designed to increase the stock of overnight shelter beds.
The discussion looked back on 10 years that saw the city’s response to homelessness change drastically, as well as forward to the next 10 years. But it also included recognition that the grants just make a dent in the overall problem.
“While we’re really excited about what the fund is achieving, we want to acknowledge that there’s a lot more need in the community,” said Danell Norby, the city’s community development coordinator, addressing the city council alongside Community Development Program Manager Peggy Sheehan on Monday evening.
Currently, the city has about 200 year-round beds for people experiencing homelessness, plus another 100 during the winter in faith-based warming shelters. The most recent round of competitive grant awards would add 24 beds from scratch and turn 42 existing winter-only beds into a year-round resource.
However, the demand still dwarfs the supply.
“Last year, the homeless count showed we had the need for about 600 people,” Sheehan said. “If we use that number, than we need 600 shelter beds.” She added that the figure was based on the annual Point in Time count, which is collected over the course of a single night in January and usually lowballs the actual number of unhoused people by about 30 percent.
The grant program also saw $1.76 million in requests, more than triple the available funding.
The shelter grants are one component of the Affordable Housing Fund. The fund was formed in 2016 through voter approval and collects $6 million per year in property taxes to spend on affordable housing and homelessness reduction. The city’s currently wrapping up its third year of the program, designed to expire in 2023.
By far, the largest slice of the Affordable Housing Fund pie has so far gone toward building new affordable housing units, as well as maintaining existing units.
Temporary shelter projects have received a relatively small chunk at 5 percent per year, or about $300,000 — it’s a little higher this year, Sheehan said, because the city was sitting on $175,000 unspent program implementation funds that it decided to roll into the grant awards.
She recommended that the funding be spent on:
• One year’s worth of staff costs for 18 new beds across two homes run by X-change Recovery ($84,226).
• One year’s worth of staff costs to add six beds at the overnight Winter Hospitality Overflow shelter, as well as funding to increase the shelter’s service from five months to 12 months out of the year ($180,949).
• One year’s worth of staff costs to increase the operating hours of the 18-bed Women’s Housing and Transition Shelter from overnight to 24 hours ($200,237).
• Sixty motel vouchers, for police officers to offer people experiencing homelessness after shelters have closed for the night ($10,000).
“When the police come across someone in the early morning or middle of the night, they don’t have any options other than to take that person to jail,” Sheehan explained. “Sometimes the person just needs a place to stay.”
Sheehan also recommended that two other applications — one to renovate the Winter Hospitality Overflow shelter ($100,000), and another to add 11 beds to the SafeChoice Shelter for women fleeing domestic violence ($1.1 million) — be denied due to lack of funds.
Past awards from the Affordable Housing Fund for shelters had focused on improving existing facilities. This year, Sheehan said, the focus was on the numbers, prioritizing applications that would increase the quantity of places for people to go at night.
“For this round of funding, we decided we wanted to see if anyone in the community was willing to take on an additional capacity of shelter,” Sheehan said. “We gave a lot of points to people who want to increase shelter beds.”
The overall strategy
To date, the city has allocated $7.7 million in Affordable Housing Fund money to build 431 permanent housing units, plus another $2.4 million to preserve 194 units. An additional $2.71 million was allocated as rental assistance to help ward off homelessness for 611 households.
Awards to temporary shelters have been comparably modest, with $628,000 to improve three shelters and add 12 new beds.
But in a presentation to the city council last week, Jackie St. Louis, Vancouver’s first ever homeless resource manager, urged leaders to do more to address the immediate needs of unhoused people.
“When we have the conversation about ‘housing first,’ it is framed as ‘housing only,’ and I think that is a misnomer,” St. Louis said.
His presentation came on the heels of a report from the Alpha Project, a San Diego-based homelessness nonprofit that visited Vancouver and recommended the city build a 150-bed bridge shelter to help people transition from homelessness into more permanent housing.
He also urged the city to work more cohesively with Clark County and existing service providers like Share, Council for the Homeless and Vancouver Housing Authority to create a more cohesive continuum of care.
“If we don’t have that alignment, we may find ourselves duplicating things that are already happening,” St. Louis said.
The city council is expected to formally approve the recommended Affordable Housing Fund grant awards during its Jan. 13 meeting.