Vancouver-area continues to deliver homelessness services amid COVID
Despite coronavirus-related struggles, Vancouver-area homelessness and affordable housing agencies continue to deliver services.
Though the need for social distancing, increased levels of sanitization and volunteer shortages during the coronavirus pandemic strained Clark County’s homeless response system, agencies continued to provide housing assistance to families in need thanks to state and federal funds.
Affordable housing and homelessness agency leaders from the City of Vancouver and Clark County shared updates on their programs Monday during a State Senate Housing & Affordability Committee hearing.
“Housing stability and affordability is more critical than ever,” said Saeed Hajarizadeh, deputy director of Vancouver Housing Authority. “Many of our citizens are having a hard time staying employed and paying rent.”
Vancouver is one of the most expensive rental markets in the state, Hajarizadeh said. In November 2016, Vancouver voters approved a $42M, 7-year Affordable Housing Fund for families earning 50% or less of the area median income. So far, $9M has been spent on housing production and $3M on housing preservation.
Over the past five years, the Vancouver Housing Authority has developed or assisted to develop eight new projects that add an additional 493 housing units, with 325 of those units being designated for housing, said Roy Johnson, executive director of Vancouver Housing Authority.
“The Housing Trust Fund has been key,” Johnson said. “The Department of Commerce has been very responsive with adapting the programs to meet the needs out there right now. We appreciate what the senators and representatives are doing throughout the state right now to make sure that trust fund is available to us.”
The agency is also looking at purchasing hotels that can be used for additional housing and shelter space, Johnson said. A hearing on expanding the scope of the HB1590 could allow for agencies to make acquisitions.
Rep. Sharon Wylie, (Vancouver), pointed out churches are often used as overflow shelters, thanks to volunteers. The volunteers, however, are often elderly and there is now less space available due to social distancing protocols.
“I am hoping we can talk about how to patch those gaps that rely on community response and volunteers,” she said. “There isn’t enough funding to get us through this pandemic period.”
Sen. Patty Kuderer (Bellevue), committee chair, agreed.
“We need to be rethinking where the resources are going and what we need to do to fill the gaps and streamline the process so that we can transition more people from homelessness into permanent housing,” she said. “I think this pandemic is going to teach us a lot of things about how we might be better able to do that.”
Jeni O’Neil, behavioral health program manager of community support services for Sea Mar, shared with the committee that their program continues to help the homeless and others in need despite the pandemic. Between July 2019-20, Sea Mar Community Health Centers served 558 community members through outreach programs.
“Obviously, we’ve had some setbacks due to COVID,” said O’Neil. “Just because the world was shutting down around us, that doesn’t mean that people’s needs for services lessened any.”
This article was cross-posted at our sister site, the Washington State Wire.