Washougal city officials address homelessness

Mayor: ‘This is an issue we’re going to have to deal with; it’s only getting worse’

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Recovery Cafe Clark County recovery coach supervisor Ethan Gonzales (right) talks with a woman in the Washougal-based Recovery Cafe on Monday, April 18, 2022. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record files)

During the Washougal City Council’s workshop on Monday, Feb. 13, Washougal Police Department Chief Wendi Steinbronn told councilmembers about the department’s recent experiences with a Washougal resident who is experiencing homelessness.

The person used to live with family members, Steinbronn said, but they got a no-contact order against her because she was violent toward them. Officers sometimes have trouble speaking to her due to her mental health issues, which cause her to fade in and out of lucidity. She engages in “anti-social behavior” and petty theft in local stores, and has ended up in jail more than once.

“I’m putting this out there because these are the types of folks we’re dealing with,” Steinbronn said. “I don’t necessarily have the solution. We can use our ability to enforce the law when they do break it, but (jail is) not really a place for her. What she needs is treatment, but she’s service resistant, so that’s a problem. She’s not unlike a lot of these folks that we deal with.”

City of Washougal officials reaffirmed their commitment to assisting the city’s homeless population during the Council workshop.

“This is an issue that we’re going to have to continue to deal with,” Mayor David Stuebe said. “It’s only getting worse. It’s better to be prepared rather than to just keep ignoring it.”

“This problem is not going to go away as costs continue to escalate over real estate property and you still have lots of drug-related crime and unemployment and low wage earners,” Councilwoman Molly Coston added.

Washougal City Manager David Scott told The Post-Record that the City has “not fully explored this issue” and is “not able to devote any further significant financial resources to this effort,” but is working to achieve the Council’s goal of “exploring options for an enhanced homeless response.”

“The Council was aware of the challenges of this context in setting this goal,” Scott said. “Our overall approach as we explore this issue will be to ensure that we maximize coordination with our partners and adapt to opportunities that present themselves for enhanced coordination and services.”

Washougal police officers regularly come into contact with “20 to 25” people who are experiencing homelessness, according to Steinbronn.

“And we know most of them by name,” she said. “We’re coming into contact with them when somebody calls in and says, ‘Hey, there’s people underneath the Washougal River Road bridge by the railroad tracks.’ Or they’re trespassing or shoplifting or engaging in other antisocial behavior. Drug addiction and mental health are the big causes of (these actions).”

Steinbronn said that some of them camp outside, while others “couch surf” and live in their cars or recreational vehicles (RVs).

“Not all homeless engage in criminal activity,” she said, “but some of them do as a lifestyle, or simply because their mental health conditions interfere with their ability to maintain social norms.”

Campers are most often seen under bridges, along railroad tracks, and Cottonwood Beach and Lower Hathaway Park, according to Steinbronn.

“These camps move around, but as soon as we get a call on them, we go out and clean them up and they’re gone for a while,” she said. “But people may go back to the same places over and over again because they usually get away with it for a while. Nobody sees them and then eventually someone will go, ‘Hey, I see a bunch of garbage down there,’ and then we find out the camp is back, so we’re cleaning up these places over and over again.”

Steinbronn told City leaders that the people living in RVs present some different challenges.

“Right now we’re dealing with two RVs,” she said. “If they’re violating our municipal code on parking regulations, we can cite them. We’re talking about the people that are living in them and staying in one spot for a long time. We’re constantly contacting them and saying, ‘Hey, you have to move.’ It’s very costly for the city to dispose of (RVs); I think the last bill we had was like $8,000. And I don’t want to be towing anybody’s house, either. I feel bad that we have to keep chasing them around, and I’m sure the community doesn’t want them living in front of their house. I don’t blame them.”

The City “will be taking a specific action to assist residents of specific low-income housing with some rental assistance,” according to Scott.

“We plan to enter into an agreement with the Vancouver Housing Authority (VHA) to use our share of a state sales tax credit — roughly $14,000 annually — to provide rental assistance to help prevent residents from being in a situation where they are at risk of becoming homeless,” he said. “This is a prevention approach. The VHA is adding some of its own funds to this effort, which is greatly appreciated.”

The City provides bus passes to individuals so they can “access more robust services in Vancouver, as well as a resource guide,” according to Scott.

“And our police department engages with individuals, providing bus passes, referrals, and emergency housing vouchers that we get through the Council for the Homeless for one- or two-night shelter at the Rama Inn,” he added. “Officers can also provide sleeping bags and food to those opting to remain outdoors during inclement weather.”

The City will also “explore opportunities to build on partnerships” with local nonprofit organizations, according to Scott.

“It’s important to point out that this is a situation that requires a lot of partnerships, and I don’t think the City is one solution or the end-all solution to the situation,” Scott said during the Feb. 13 meeting. “I think our not-for-profit partners are key to this. A lot of nonprofits in our community are stepping up.”

The City gives ReFuel Washougal $5,200 per year and provides its community center facility to the nonprofit organization to serve meals to people in need, including those who are experiencing homelessness.

“Council members and staff actively volunteer with the program,” Scott said. “We also provide our facility for their severe weather shelter, which they staff when they have enough volunteers. They distribute various supplies and support items to individuals as part of these efforts.”

The City also refers people to organizations such as the Camas-Washougal Salvation Army, Family Promise of Clark County and Recovery Cafe Clark County, which provide services to people experiencing homelessness.

“The Washougal community has a big heart,” Scott said, “and there are volunteers and organizations who do good work to help those in need.”