“No law enforcement today,” Officer Tyler Chavers said as he approached a man and his tent alongside Burnt Bridge Creek.
The 16-year veteran of the Vancouver Police Department wasn’t there to give citations for unlawful camping. Rather, he surveyed people Thursday morning for the Point in Time count, an annual census of the homeless population.
As the city’s newly minted Homeless Assistance Response Team officer, Chavers’ job entails working closely with homeless people and service providers. He was accompanied Thursday by Tiffany Hayes, a homeless outreach case manager at Community Services Northwest, and homeless advocate Chuck Goneau.
While he was the neighborhood police officer for the west side of Vancouver, Chavers knew about Point in Time, but this was his first time participating. On Thursday, he asked questions and gathered demographic data such as gender, race, age, veteran status and length of homelessness.
Karalee Grunwald told Chavers she used to live in Hazel Dell and had been homeless since June. When asked if she had any pets, the 41-year-old brought out a black and white cat named Chyzeball from the back of her van.
“I can’t afford to get my own place,” said Grunwald, who receives $783 in monthly Social Security as well as food stamps. “Anybody can become homeless.”
As Chavers concluded the survey, he suggested Grunwald call Hayes to get connected to services.
The Point in Time count is required by state law and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Its goal is to inform funding decisions for services that help homeless people get back on their feet.
Michael Torres, community housing and development manager with Clark County Community Services, said the county spent about $7.1 million in 2019 on homeless services. He expects 2020 will be roughly the same, but it depends on what’s collected through document recording fees and any changes to state and federal funding.
That’s one reason Goneau decided to volunteer for this year’s count; he’d like to see more funding for social workers and housing programs.
“I’d like to get an accurate count even though we won’t get close,” said Goneau, who serves food Saturdays in Leverich Park through his organization Break Every Chain Foundation.
Over his years volunteering in the homeless community, Goneau has seen a lot of people get housed, but he’s also seen a lot of new faces. Last year’s Point in Time count showed a 21 percent increase in homelessness from 2018, including a 30 percent increase in unsheltered people.
The unsheltered population was the group volunteers set out to tally on Thursday. Hayes has been an outreach worker for a few months. She said the count helps her become more familiar with who she could help and where they camp.
“I’m glad that we’re out here. I’m glad that we’re meeting people, letting them know that we care,” she said.
Survey-takers gave out bus passes, copies of the Pocket Guide, a waterproof resource guide, and flyers for Project Homeless Connect, a resource fair at St. Joseph Catholic Church that attracted about 250 people Thursday. They also gave people supplies for living outside.
For 24-year-old Joseph Taylor Letts, he needed everything: a tent, sleeping bag, backpack and jacket. When the group saw him in Leverich Park, he was carrying snacks and a fleece blanket.
Hayes said it feels good to give people something useful.
“When I was homeless, I didn’t feel like there were a lot of services or outreach,” Hayes said. While homeless in Estacada, Ore., she was not counted as part of any survey. “I really wish I could’ve had one of me back then.”
The Point in Time provides a snapshot of homelessness, pointing to local, regional and national trends. However, it’s considered an undercount given the difficulty of finding and surveying every homeless person in a single day.
Last year’s Point in Time tallied 487 unsheltered people. Based on police contacts and the number of people visiting the Navigation Center, Chavers believes there were about double that amount.
Part of the mission of the newly formed Homeless Assistance Response Team, or HART, will be to collect more data on the local homeless population. With Jackie St. Louis leaving his post as the city’s homeless resources manager, Chavers is a one-man team for now.
When more people are hired and HART gets up and running, it’ll work sort of like the group that went out Thursday — people from different departments and agencies interacting with the city’s homeless community. Ideally, Chavers will be joined by a caseworker and someone from city code enforcement.
Chavers said the Vancouver Police Department a few years ago discussed having a position focused on homelessness and looked at Tacoma’s Homeless Outreach Team.
With his time as neighborhood police officer ending, Chavers was faced with going back to patrol or working more closely with the homeless population. Since he was already the homeless liaison for the neighborhoods he covered as an NPO, many people told Chavers he should apply for the HART officer job. In fact, people are still suggesting he apply because they don’t know he started his new role.
Chavers said his understanding of homelessness changed “wildly” over the last several years. He learned how to talk and work with unhoused people. He learned that some people don’t want help or say they don’t want housing because they’ve lost hope.
“It’s been incredibly enlightening and, in some cases, frustrating,” Chavers said, adding: “There’s a lot of momentum in the right direction.”
Part of his job is overcoming people’s initial apprehensions based on his uniform. In the future, he plans to wear something that sets him apart from other city officers, though he’s still required to properly identify himself as a police officer, including having a vest, badge and gun.
He hopes to develop a reputation where people know his primary duty is not to handcuff people.
“Is there a law enforcement component and perspective that needs to be there? Absolutely,” he said. “The actual bread and butter is the personal contact.”
Chavers works Monday through Thursday and said eventually there will be another Homeless Assistance Response Team officer to cover the other days of the week.