© The Columbian, 2020
By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
Published: April 19, 2020, 6:00am
With the Vancouver Navigation Center open limited hours and many public places closed, resources for people who are unhoused are opening or expanding around the city.
Showers, hand washing stations and a parking lot encampment are among the offerings meant to help prevent the spread of coronavirus among the homeless population.
Living Hope Church has long hosted a shower trailer on Wednesdays and Sundays but decided to expand to Monday and Friday when the virus came into play, said Pastor Brian Norris.
“We started realizing there was more of a need,” Norris said.
The Navigation Center doesn’t currently offer showers. Also, Norris said, homeless people who have gym memberships can no longer access those facilities to shower.
Each day Living Hope’s Live Love Center is open, it provides a meal, restrooms and showers using a trailer from Food with Friends. The showers are particularly important due to the COVID-19 pandemic putting an emphasis on personal hygiene and cleanliness. The showers are bleached between each use.
“It’s already vital, but now it’s more needed,” said Cherish DesRochers-Vafeados, who heads Food with Friends, the nonprofit that runs the shower trailer. She is also a Battle Ground city councilor.
Lately, she’s received more calls from people asking about showers. Without the showers at the Navigation Center, Food with Friends’ trailer is the only place for people who are unhoused to get a free shower, she said. DesRochers-Vafeados recently spoke with a man who hadn’t showered for a month.
She’s working on getting another shower trailer up and running. The aim is to remodel the trailer and set it up permanently at Living Hope Church while the other trailer could be hauled around town wherever it’s needed.
Living Hope Church is also in talks with the city to open a temporary tent encampment behind its building off Andresen Road.
For now, its homeless outreach is happening outside in the parking lot. Norris said the Live Love Center doesn’t just serve homeless people. Those who are living paycheck to paycheck come to the center to get bags of food or clothing. Volunteers are handing people items rather than letting them shop inside.
As Norris reminded people waiting for showers Friday afternoon to keep space between each other, someone said: “But we love our friends!”
“I know. We’ll get back to hugging soon,” Norris replied.
Doc Kerr noted that during this pandemic, everyone is being told they can’t go here or there. For the homeless, “that’s every day.” Kerr, who’s been homeless in Washington for five years, said he doesn’t normally like asking for help. But one day he came to Living Hope Church, and they treated him so well he decided to keep coming back.
“It’s a blessed place,” Kerr said. “They give their time for people who have nothing, who feel like nothing.”
The showers are located about two miles away from the city’s temporary parking lot encampment at Vancouver Mall where people are quarantining in their vehicles.
Thirty-five of the 40 available spots are being used at the encampment, Dave Perlick, recreation manager for the Parks and Recreation Department, said Friday. With a couple of families on site, there are 60 people staying there.
Perlick said the city increased trash collection and added a weekly street sweeper to ensure the site is well maintained. The Clark County Food Bank provides boxes of food to people weekly, and other donors have provided toiletries and pet waste bags.
The parking lot remains open through May 4 under the governor’s current stay home, stay healthy order.
“If that order gets extended and the mall remains largely closed, it is our intent to extend the safe park program,” Perlick said in an email. “That decision is contingent on discussion with Continental Real Estate and the Vancouver Mall.”
Fourth Plain Pit Stop
In addition to extra showers and a parking lot encampment, homeless advocates launched the Fourth Plain Pit Stop where people can use portable restrooms and wash their hands in the parking lot of River City Church.
The church is across from Water Works Park and a few blocks down from the Navigation Center. Jamie Spinelli, a case manager with Community Services Northwest who helped put the pit stop together, had been mulling how to help people staying in the area. Spinelli said she was glad to see the city reopen some public restrooms but was concerned Water Works Park and Leverich Park weren’t included; restrooms at both sites are heavily used by people living outside. She hopes the pit stop helps fill the gap.
The Rev. Ryan Sidhom, pastor at River City Church, said church leaders were praying for an opportunity to serve the homeless population, especially after hearing about the Navigation Center’s closure.
“That’s when Jamie called me and pitched the idea,” Sidhom said.
The church is a year old and focuses on ways it can serve the community, Sidhom said.
“This is something that’s kind of built into our DNA,” he said.
The pit stop opened Thursday with three portable restrooms, including one that’s wheelchair accessible, and two hand washing stations. It’s open daily, but hours depend on volunteer staffing. Washington Recovery Services funded the startup costs.
Volunteers are tasked with ensuring people maintain social distancing and disinfecting the portable toilets after each use.
“Which makes these the cleanest toilets in town,” Spinelli quipped.
She’s kept up with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for people who are unhoused and sought guidance from Clark County Public Health on how to run the pit stop.
“Handwashing has been called a lifesaving measure at this point,” Spinelli said.
Unhoused people need to take the same mitigating efforts that everyone else can employ at home. If COVID-19 gets into the homeless population it “would spread like wildfire,” Spinelli said.
Spinelli noted the pit stop isn’t intended to be a hangout. On Thursday, there weren’t more than three people on site at a time. Food, clothing and other supplies are not distributed to preserve the site’s cleanliness.
The Fourth Plain Pit Stop could, however, become a place for outreach workers to meet clients, and Spinelli expects education around COVID-19 to be done there.
She recently met a homeless man who said he didn’t know anything about the virus. People staying outside may not have access to the same information housed people do or be able to stay up to date with the constant stream of coronavirus news.