‘I never had really lived on my own’: Clark County’s unhoused embrace hotels converted to shelter

By Troy Brynelson (OPB)
March 9, 2021 2:28 p.m.

While her clothes spun in one of the laundromat’s thrumming, industrial-sized wash machines, Felicia felt content.

Felicia is talking on a cellphone outside of her car. She wears a hoodie with the hood pulled up.

Felicia, who declined to give her last name, stands next to the car where she sleeps half the time. Felicia was a tenant at a hotel-turned-shelter and is now hoping to get into permanent housing.

Troy Brynelson / OPB


It was late January. Felicia drove from a family friend’s house in Washougal, where she slept some nights. She parked her car — packed with food, blankets and her dog Dozer — to do about a week’s worth of laundry.

“It’s always nice to take a moment and actually show some self-love,” she said with a calm cadence that, she soon revealed, masked her anxiety.

She said she had been struggling with her thoughts lately. It had been two months since she was essentially evicted from one of her most stable housing situations in recent memory, a Motel 6 converted into an ad hoc homeless shelter.

Now, she spent half her nights sleeping in her car and the other half at the friend’s Washougal home. She said she worried about others in less stable situations. She knew she still had a car and a friend’s couch.

“My biggest worry is for those homeless out there that don’t have somewhere to be and that are faring through the elements,” she said.

Felicia, who declined to give her last name, is one of close to 200 people who stayed at the motel last year. Clark County leased it using coronavirus relief funds to help unsheltered people stay socially distanced during the pandemic — or isolate and quarantine, if needed.

The arrangement ended in December, but the motel was a proof of concept for a new kind of shelter in the region. The county already plans to open another this summer. That’s welcomed news to people who stayed at the Motel 6 last year.

“People have a secure place to put their stuff so nobody’s going to steal it, so they can go get their food handlers card or get their driver’s license,” said Sharon, who also declined to give her last name.

OPB spoke with five people, including Felicia and Sharon, who spent weeks or months at hotels last year. The stability, they said, propelled some toward better housing or jobs. Then, their lives took a step back when it closed. They’re hopeful hotels-as-shelter could be the pandemic’s silver lining.

A new concept to Clark County

At the laundromat, after throwing her heap of wet clothes into a dryer, Felicia punched in a laundry card given to her by a case manager. She’s slightly built, while her dog, Dozer, is a gentle, brick-shaped mutt.

Unstably housed for the last two decades, Felicia said the last two months since the Motel 6 closed have been difficult. She said she had to spend a week in the hospital after she and the other tenants were effectively evicted.

“Once I got into the Motel 6, I was able to find myself a routine, having somewhere that I could lay my head,” she said. “Not feeling so stuck in turmoil. That’s what was more pleasant about the Motel 6 situation. I didn’t have to continuously run around anymore.”

The non-congregate shelter allows individuals their own space. It’s a concept that became especially popular due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To help unsheltered people isolate themselves, cities and counties across the nation leased out hotels and motels, which were happy to fill empty rooms when travel went dry.

In October, the University of Washington published a study finding non-congregate shelter both helped slow coronavirus transmission, and its tenants reported improved physical and mental health, including “the ability to focus on long-term goals such as obtaining housing, employment and education, rather than simply focusing on day-to-day survival.”

Clark County, where close to 1,000 people experience homelessness, according to the latest data, had never used such a shelter. The last high-profile attempt was the city of Vancouver’s navigation center — a day center where people could do laundry, get mail and check into services. It closed permanently during the pandemic.

Andy Silver, director of supportive services at Vancouver Housing Authority, said a shelter like the Motel 6 had long been discussed, but it took the pandemic to set it quickly in motion.

“One way to look at this is that our community has sort of been dipping our toe in the water,” Silver said. “Then COVID hit. All of a sudden, it forced everybody’s hands to say, ‘No more incremental change.’”

Not only did the motel open, but local governments and nonprofits also paid more to fund vouchers for other hotel and motel stays. The Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, for example, said it gave $165,000 to pay for stays in 2020.

“Really, until COVID hit, motel vouchers were reserved for very specific, highly vulnerable situations,” said Jamie Spinelli, Vancouver’s homeless resources manager. “Motel money started becoming more widely available and eligibility requirements to get in also laxed.”

Jamie Spinelli stands bundled up in warm clothes and a mask, in front of a few tents at a homeless camp in Clark County. The weather is rainy.

Jamie Spinelli stands at a homeless camp in Clark County. Spinelli, Vancouver's homeless resources manager, said hotel vouchers for unsheltered people became more widely available last year during the pandemic.

Troy Brynelson / OPB

Janelle MacDavid, 30, stayed three months at a local Red Lion Inn. She said she was able to get copies of her birth certificate, a government ID, her food handler’s card and a job at a local pizza chain. Before that, she slept in a tent.

“When (support services would) come down there and say, ‘What can we help you with?’ that’s a loaded question because you need all of the above,” MacDavid said. “Just that little few months of stability — somewhere to get my head together and take a shower and charge my phone — I was able to do all of these things.”

Cloistering in a shelter never appealed to her, either, because it often took time to travel there, she said. Shelters also often split men and women, and MacDavid didn’t want to separate from her partner at night.

“I’d rather be on the streets with my man comfortable enough than somewhere else,” she said. She said she had to quit her job when she became homeless again.

Sharon, who spends most of her time living in her inherited 2007 Chevy Impala with her husband and son, said leaving the Motel 6 has squelched any optimism she felt about local homeless solutions.

“Right now, I feel as if this county’s hopeless,” she said.

A possible solution long-term

The Motel 6 opened for roughly seven months, from May to early December. The county terminated its lease when federal funding dwindled.

Its tenure was mostly free of drama, according to officials. The county received three official complaints. One major incident, however, was a fire in September that killed a man. Investigators ruled it an accident caused by a cigarette.

Some former residents described a few tumultuous nights. They said tenants sometimes fought with each other. Kevin Shimpach, who now sleeps in his van, said he called police a handful of times, especially on his neighbors.

“They didn’t make noise during the day, but it was all night long,” he said. “You can’t control a bunch of homeless people by putting them in a motel and giving them a sheet of rules and putting it on the door.”

Despite the noise, Shimpach said he at least had proper rest at the Motel 6, compared to sleeping in his vehicle, and it helped with his medical conditions.

“It was nice I didn’t have the swelling in my feet and my calves,” he said. “Plus, you know, you’ve got cable tv, you got a microwave, and a refrigerator and a shower. And, most important, you got a toilet.”

Non-congregate shelter as a concept has its drawbacks, too. Some experts say it can keep some people from getting out of cycles that lead to housing instability. Adam Kravitz, a recovering addict who now runs the Vancouver shelter Outsiders Inn, said the siloed rooms take away some of the community accountability found in more traditional shelters, making it easier to slip back into substance abuse or enter unhealthy relationships.

“If you are giving people the chance to isolate, the chance to continue doing bad behaviors,” he said, “people are going to jump into what’s comfortable. They’re not going to jump into what’s uncomfortable.”

Vanessa Gaston, director of Clark County Community Services, the department that oversaw the new motel effort, said any bad behavior that occurred at the shelter could have happened elsewhere, too.

“I think people need to be aware that these are human beings and situations happen,” Gaston said. “I wouldn’t want to say that this is a failure. A lot of people gave a lot of thank-yous for being there.”

She and other officials remain impressed with how tenants fared. Data tracked how many households — single tenants, couples and families — exited the Motel 6 into permanent housing. Roughly 40 households out of 188 did so, according to the local nonprofit Council for the Homeless.

Gaston said she envisioned the new shelter will pick up where the Motel 6 left off. It will act as a waystation to help get people rental assistance for permanent housing, or into treatment, she said.

Clark County plans to run the shelter for three years. It is leasing the space with a grant from the Washington Department of Commerce. After three years, it will be converted into housing by the Vancouver Housing Authority.

Felicia, who was close to the man who died in the fire at the motel, remained shaken by the experience. She called it a “sickening” reminder of the dangers of living in poverty. Since the eviction, two more people she knew died: one from a heart attack, another hit by a car while trying to walk across Interstate 205.

Felicia drew a straight line from the instability of the eviction to their recent deaths.

“If we’re able to be provided stability and housing, medical care and a sense of urgency in those (aspects), that ultimately helps us live longer and healthier lives,” she said.

Interviewed again late February, she said she still feels unstable about her housing future. Yet, she was optimistic about an application for a subsidized apartment. She credited her stay at the Motel 6.

“I never had really lived on my own,” she said. “It kind of gave me a running start for what I’m going to be looking forward to in my apartment.”