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East Clark County takes community approach to homelessness

CAMAS — “Everybody has to be somewhere,” Laura Ellsworth told the crowd gathered Wednesday at St. Thomas Aquinas in Camas.

That somewhere could be a house, a tent, a car or a homeless shelter. In some cases, people who struggle with housing stability live in the small cities of Camas and Washougal. In 2019, 133 homeless people who sought help from the local homeless crisis response system said they last resided in Camas or Washougal.

Ellsworth, strategic partnerships manager at Council for the Homeless, and other service providers spoke Wednesday about homelessness in east Clark County. The gathering was the second in a monthly education series organized by the nonprofit.

When Kevin Lemke was homeless, he resided on the quieter east side of the county even though it was farther away from services.

“You’re not being harassed by law enforcement or businesses,” he told The Columbian while eating dinner at Refuel Washougal. He’s lived in the area for years.

Refuel hosts a meal every Friday at the Washougal Community Center that’s open to anyone in need. It typically sees a handful of homeless patrons each Friday. Lemke wishes more of these services were available. He and others agreed that Washougal has more of a community approach to homelessness. Chuck Goneau, a homeless advocate who lives in east Vancouver, said he wishes the city of Vancouver was involved in homelessness the way Washougal is.

Bus passes and waterproof resource guides are available at City Hall. Camping is allowed from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. around the building. And, Washougal lends its community center for Refuel Washougal and an overnight severe weather shelter.

“These are our neighbors. These are our friends that some of you went to school with,” the Rev. Robert Barber said during Wednesday’s forum. “As a community, we need to care for them.”

Barber is pastor of St. Matthew Lutheran Church and chairman of Refuel Washougal. He says cities should focus on how to help homeless people within their own communities and pursue legislation that addresses the lack of affordable housing.

“I think the city can lead the way on that quicker than anyone else,” Barber said.

He noted the severe weather shelter was built out of an idea from former Washougal Mayor Sean Guard. The shelter opens when temperatures dip below 30 degrees or there is ice or snow — a threshold that allows the small city of 16,500 people to cobble together enough volunteers. Pets are allowed and totes are available for people to stow their belongings for the night. An increasing number of women and children visit the shelter, which has opened eight times this year, Barber said.

“Washougal is very good about networking and working with other nonprofit agencies to try and help not just people experiencing homelessness but marginalized people in general,” said Samantha Wheeler, envoy at The Salvation Army in Washougal. She said she often exchanges information and supplies with Barber.

The Salvation Army provides meals, food boxes, clothing and other supplies as well as a day center with a shower. Recently, the nonprofit held an outreach event that included free haircuts and massages.

“If we see a need, we try to figure out how to meet the need,” Wheeler said.

The panelists were asked how people can help when they see someone in need in Camas and Washougal.

“First thing: Don’t give them money,” Barber said. “The more we refer people to services and help them get connected, the more likely they’re going to get sustainable help rather than something that’s keeping them trapped.”

Wheeler agreed and said people could donate money to local service organizations instead including The Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul, Interfaith Treasure House, East County Family Resource Center and Radiant Church.

“If you think you’re giving them money to help them get into a hotel, that’s not going to happen,” Wheeler said. “I’ve seen that hinder people from getting the help that they need.”

The panelists differed on whether homelessness is a choice. Council for the Homeless brought a flyer to the event that says people do not choose to be homeless. Wheeler and Barber, however, said homelessness is a choice for some.

“This is a tough one, because I was just about to say that it’s not a choice,” said Linda Winnett, executive director of Family Promise of Clark County.

She’s gotten a lot of referrals from two-parent households and large families with upwards of 10 people looking to stay in her shelter, which rotates weekly to different churches around the county.

Olivia Eagle, who works for the Camas School District and its Family-Community Resource Center, emphasized there’s a wide definition of homelessness, so it may or may not be a choice. She gets calls from families needing help paying rent.

The group agreed that there isn’t much traveling within the homeless community or people coming to Washougal specifically for its services. People who are homeless are going to stay wherever is safe and familiar, Barber said.

“Even though they could take the bus from downtown Portland to beautiful downtown Washougal, it’s not happening,” he said.

Despite seeing more and more need, Barber said he’s also seen a positive trend in east Clark County: More people want to be involved in solutions.

“Don’t underestimate the value you bring,” he said. “There are always ways that you can help.”


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