Gov. Jay Inslee ordered Washington residents on Monday to stay home, but what does his proclamation mean for people who don’t have homes?
“It’s a really challenging situation,” said Kate Budd, executive director of Vancouver-based Council for the Homeless.
Her organization developed a one-page document to hand out to homeless people that provides information about COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and how to prevent it from spreading in a camp or shelter.
Budd said outreach workers are advising people to keep a 6-foot distance between others, sleep head-to-foot with other people if they can, and wear a bandana around their nose to reduce the spread of bodily fluids. (The virus can spread through droplets.)
Many people living outside consider each other family, so social distancing can be difficult, said homeless advocate Adam Kravitz.
“Asking the homeless population to not be social with each other is just not possible,” he said.
While Inslee’s stay-home order does not apply to people who are homeless, they are urged to find shelter. The proclamation says entities “are strongly encouraged to make sure shelter is available as soon as possible to the maximum extent practicable.”
Clark County Community Services began looking for motels to house homeless people impacted by the virus, but the spaces may not house everyone currently living outside. During a single-day census of the homeless population last year, 487 unsheltered people were counted. The county aims to open at least 200 beds by early April.
Getting into a shelter isn’t easy; many places are not taking new referrals. Steve Marta said that he and his wife have tried repeatedly to get into shelter or housing by calling Council for the Homeless’ Housing Hotline. The couple recently got turned down again, Marta said, even though his wife has a poor immune system.
He said he believes that they will contract the virus if they are around people who have it.
“We’re at our wit’s end on this,” Marta said.
A 50-year-old woman who is living out of her car (and declined to give her name because she’s fleeing domestic violence) told The Columbian she’s also having trouble getting assistance. The Interstate 5 rest stop where she’s staying is crowded with other people in similar situations.
“What happens to someone like me?” she said. “When this rest stop closes, where do I go?”
March also typically signals the closure of seasonal shelters. The winter shelter for women and families at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Orchards will close March 31.
Meanwhile, permanent, year-round shelters such as Open House Ministries’ family shelter in downtown Vancouver are adjusting operations to follow the governor’s orders. Vancouver Housing Authority, which owns the Valley Homestead shelter in Hazel Dell, may move some residents to Fishers Mill Apartments because there are concerns around social distancing at the shelter.
Two other shelters are using money from Vancouver’s Affordable Housing Fund to expand. The Women’s Housing and Transition shelter, called the WHAT, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church is making the transition from an overnight shelter to a 24/7 shelter. St. Paul Lutheran Church hosts an overnight winter shelter for men that will continue under a new shelter program on April 1. Kravitz and his nonprofit Outsiders Inn will operate the shelter.
Kravitz said he’s fielded questions from people living outside about where they can go during the day.
“And there’s no answer. That’s the biggest problem,” he said.
‘Compliance is the goal’
The coronavirus and stay-at-home order do not impact current county and city ordinances regarding camping and parking recreational vehicles.
Kim Kapp, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Police Department, said that if officers see groups of people, they will educate them about the statewide mandate in case they’re not aware.
“Compliance is the goal, and citing anyone is a last resort,” Kapp said in an email.
Anyone could legally be cited whether they are homeless or not.
“We are not anticipating having to do that based on how people have already been doing social distancing even before the governor’s order went out,” Kapp said.
She added that homeless people are primarily being contacted by outreach workers, not police, who are helping them with resources and ways to say healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city’s camping and unlawful storage ordinances, which prohibit camping between 6:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m., are still in effect.
On Tuesday, the Clark County Sheriff’s Office began enforcing the county’s new restrictions for parking RVs on county roads. Sgt. Brent Waddell said that people living out of RVs on Northeast 17th Avenue in Salmon Creek and Northeast Eighth Avenue in Hazel Dell were given a few weeks’ notice of the new ordinance.
“This isn’t a surprise,” Waddell said.
Deputies also towed three abandoned RVs on Tuesday.
Earlier this month, the county adopted a series of parking restrictions aimed at reducing the number of RVs used as living spaces on public roads. The rules took effect March 20. Under the new ordinance, automobiles can park on county roads for up to 24 hours without a permit, but RVs require a $10 permit. Living in an RV for an extended period on public streets is not allowed under the ordinance.
Sharon Myers, who was evicted from Sam’s Good RV Park before the statewide moratorium on evictions went into effect, had been parking her RV on Northeast Eighth Avenue. A handful of people were parked in the area before deputies told them they needed to leave.
“Everybody’s going to lose what they call their homes,” Myers said. “There’s nowhere for us to go. They are literally pushing us out of town.”
She is upset that Washington residents are being told to stay put, but those who are homeless and living in RVs are being moved around town. She’s particularly concerned for an older homeless friend who has health problems.
Kravitz thinks that if shelter were available for all homeless people — regardless of whether they have symptoms of the virus — it would alleviate some concerns about where to go and what to do. If the county waits until people are directly impacted by COVID-19, it may be too late, he said.
“Let’s get them a spot on a floor somewhere in a building where they can have some stability,” Kravitz said.