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Vancouver’s homeless find themselves ‘kind of stuck’ during pandemic

Bella Lynch feels more worn down these days without the emotional and mental support of her family, especially her grandmother. She misses being able to visit with her and help with her flower beds.

“It hurts because she practically raised me,” she said.

Lynch stays at the city-sanctioned tent encampment at Living Hope Church, which offers food, restrooms and showers — basic services that have been harder to come by during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Some weeks we get bombarded and can’t take care of everybody,” said Patrick Quinlan, who oversees the encampment.

The services also attract homeless people camping in the area or staying in their cars at the SafePark Zone at Evergreen Transit Center.

David Williams, while eating dinner at Living Hope on Thursday, said that, due to the pandemic, some fast-food restaurants are drive-thru-only so you can’t go inside to get something to eat, use the restroom or enjoy the air conditioning.

“They closed down the Navigation Center and nobody has a place to go,” he said.

Jamie Spinelli, homeless advocate and peer housing support at CVAB (Community Voices Are Born), ran a hand-washing and restroom stop on Fourth Plain Boulevard until June 2. She said that while some park restrooms have reopened, the hours can be inconsistent.

Aleshia Foster strategically sticks to visiting Vancouver Mall, the Veterans Affairs campus and parks.

“Those are the only few places I go,” she said. “It’s been really hard.”

Granting leeway

Williams, who’s been outside for two years, noticed police are allowing homeless people to stay in public places later. That’s actually by design.

Vancouver police Officer Tyler Chavers said Vancouver’s ordinances against unlawful camping and storage of personal property are still in effect but not enforced at the level they were prior to coronavirus. Data shows the number of citations issued in the last few months is down from the same time last year.

The city is following health guidelines that say people without shelter should not be moved around, in order to prevent them from potentially contracting and spreading the virus.

“The best thing is to let them shelter in place,” Chavers said.

Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick explained that keeping people in one place is a way to control communicable disease. He added that smaller encampments are better than bigger ones.

“Once you start breaking these groups up and moving people around, you introduce the disease to a whole new population,” he said.

Travel bans use a similar concept; you keep the virus in one area, preventing it from spreading from place to place.

Melnick said sheltering in place can put people at risk if they don’t have access to personal hygiene and face masks. Often, unhoused people have other health conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, that make them particularly vulnerable.

And, with unhoused people hunkering down, it’s made homelessness more visible to the rest of the community.

Chavers noted that people without homes may be more visible now because they don’t want to be far from help, whether that means being closer to sanitation and showers or being able to flag down an ambulance.

As the city’s Homeless Assistance Response Team officer, he’s been fielding a lot of inquiries about encampments that come in through phone, email or the MyVancouver mobile app. In his reply, he explains how breaking up camps is unsafe right now.

“Most people understand,” he said. “Not everyone that calls is complaining. They’re really asking the question ‘What are we doing to help these folks?’ ”

‘At a breaking point’

Adam Kravitz, homeless advocate and founder of Outsiders Inn, said not enforcing the camping ordinances makes it easier to find people. However, services aren’t being delivered and it’s starting to show at those encampments. He believes “we’re at a breaking point.”

The virus perpetuates and highlights the challenges that unhoused people already face. Getting government identification or going to a doctor’s appointment or getting laundry washed is more difficult. Jacky Snell, with homeless service provider Share, said many people do not have access to a phone or internet to make necessary calls to sign up for benefits.

“That being said, our clients have adjusted and are making the best of what is going on,” Snell said in an email. “As long as we are engaging out on the street and giving them the most updated information, they are taking it all in stride. We are not able to help everyone experiencing homelessness but have been able to assist some in meeting their goals by providing them with support, advocacy and the ability to use our phones as needed.”

Jeanne Nelson has been homeless for eight years. While eating dinner Thursday at Living Hope Church, she said many people feel “kind of stuck” right now. A lot of in-person services are closed and she finds it hard to find temporary work and odd jobs.

Spinelli, the peer housing support worker at CVAB, agreed. Her job is to help clients access every resource they need, but she finds herself coming up short because so much is closed.

“It was hard to come up with the basic things people need,” she said.

Success stories

Kravitz runs an overnight men’s shelter at St. Paul Lutheran Church in downtown Vancouver. Despite the pandemic, he’s had 15 clients transition into housing. Some others went to treatment centers.

Still, the shelter is not running at full capacity due to COVID-19 and concerns around congregate settings. This prompted Kravitz to start looking at possible satellite shelter locations.

Kravitz is concerned as summer nears its end. What will happen if there aren’t enough volunteers to staff the winter shelters? If there’s a need to hire staff, where will the money come from? What will happen to the Navigation Center?

A former Motel 6 in east Vancouver is being used as a quarantine and isolation site for people exposed to COVID-19 as well as a shelter for particularly vulnerable people. The shelter portion has remained consistently full.

“People want to be inside for the most part, they do,” Spinelli said. “It just shows you the need and the want for shelter.”

Spinelli would like to see more safe spaces, including land designated for camping.

People may not be swept from their campsites today, but that’s not to say it won’t happen soon. She knows encampments are growing and complaints from residents are growing, too.

For instance, two years ago there was a major effort to clean the streets around Share House, a men’s homeless shelter downtown. Now dozens of people are staying on those streets again.

Spreading out

Downtown Vancouver is not the only impacted area.

Laura Lindeman, chair of the Maplewood Neighborhood Association in central Vancouver, has seen several people walk up to the Navigation Center gate with all of their possessions only to discover the day center is closed. Whereas it used to be open daily, it’s now open 10 a.m. to noon Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Lindeman said the neighborhood’s struggles with the Navigation Center pitted housed people against unhoused people, which wasn’t fair. Things have calmed down a bit, but the area — and the county at large — still has a sizable homeless presence.

“Now, there’s nothing for them,” Lindeman said. “This isn’t going to get better. This is going to get way worse.”

She described a recent situation where she came outside her shop and saw a man bent over her water spigot trying to wash his undergarments.

“I felt broken for this man,” Lindeman said.

She couldn’t think of nearby bathrooms or free laundry facilities. Because her water bills have increased, she imagines there are many people outside taking the same measures to try to stay clean and healthy. Neighbors and landlords in the area have talked about partnering with a laundromat to help people, and brainstorming other potential solutions to the lack of access to services. She feels there is much work to be done to help this “forgotten community.”

“It’s sad and painful to watch the suffering,” Lindeman said. “I have to believe we can resolve this.”


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