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Regional Interests

Clark County earmarks $15 million of federal relief money for homelessness

Millions of Clark County’s federal pandemic relief dollars will go toward helping unsheltered residents.

The Clark County Council has agreed to put $15.5 million in federal funds toward expanding shelters, paying for rental assistance and vouchers for hotel rooms, and hiring more staff who work in various homeless assistance programs.

Councilors approved the spending plan Tuesday, making their first earmarks on nearly $95 million the county received from the American Rescue Plan. Congress passed the federal relief plan in March to offset impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think it’s a very strong indication of where their priorities are that the very first allocation they make with these funds is towards homelessness,” said Michael Torres, the county’s community housing and development manager.

Councilors greenlit the spending plan by a 4-0 vote. Councilor Julie Olson was absent.

A staff report shows plans to distribute funds across several social programs. Torres noted in an interview that the spending plan isn’t finalized. He said dollar figures on the report are estimates.

The plan does show where county staff’s priorities are heading. The plan anticipates spending the vast majority of the money on expanding shelter and outreach teams.

About $5 million could be given to shelter operators to increase the number of beds, pay for more shelter staff and potentially set up new kinds of shelter. Some shelters are congregate, meaning many people to a room, while non-congregate housing gives individuals or families their own space.

“We’re going to look for opportunities to increase congregate and non-congregate shelter bed capacity in the community — so increased number of beds,” Torres said. “We want to increase the available supports that already exist and make them stronger.”

Shelters, and different kinds of living spaces, have garnered a lot of attention in Southwest Washington since the onset of the pandemic. Clark County intends to rehab a 63-room hotel into shelter in the coming months. The city of Vancouver also recently announced plans to sanction up to three campsites by the end of the year for people who prefer sheltering outdoors.

The staff report suggests setting another $4.4 million aside for outreach teams to help unsheltered residents find everything from housing to meals and medication. The goal, Torres said, would be to hire more people and expand hours.

“It’s still a Monday-through-Friday, 8-to-5 outreach effort. There isn’t much happening after hours or over weekends,” he said.

Adam Kravitz, a co-runner of the Vancouver shelter Outsiders Inn, said his organization has had plans to launch a peer support program where formerly unhoused peers attempt to help people get services. The organization already runs a shelter, a mail service and gives out laundry passes.

Kravitz said he was optimistic about the county approving the money.

“Putting money into outreach, putting money into sheltered campsites, these are all things that address different levels of homelessness — and specifically unsheltered forms of homelessness,” he said.

Torres said county staff plan to meet with organizations next week to start finalizing a plan. County councilors will also have to meet in July to approve budget changes.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting