Paul Lamm’s tent went missing two nights ago. That day he ducked behind a grocery store, where the tent had stood on pallets to stay dry, and found only a mud patch.
The grocery store, he heard from friends who lived nearby, threw everything away. That night, he slept in a wooded area with only a sleeping bag and a tarp.
His new shoes would stay soaked for days, even as he walked around the place that’s becoming his new home: Vancouver’s first sanctioned outdoor community. It opened Thursday.
“I can’t wear a pair of pants and keep them clean, bro. These shoes are less than a week old,” Lamm, 42, said. “They’re torn up. It’s not even what I would use for the wintertime.”
A former ironworker with beat-up hands and a crooked back, Lamm is one of the first residents of the new site. He’s been homeless for about six years, he said. He traces his struggles to a high-speed motorcycle accident that sent his life spiraling.
While he said he didn’t expect the place to be perfect, the new shelter he’s moving into gave him a chance at stability.
“Police can’t take it, (the grocery store) can’t take it. It’s going to be here,” Lamm said.
The “Safe Stay Community,” as it’s called by city leaders, consists of 20 eight-by-eight-foot metal shelters in a cul-de-sac in Vancouver’s North Image neighborhood. The city is paying local nonprofit Outsiders Inn $571,148 to run the site’s day-to-day operations.
With Christmas Day near, wreaths hung from every door. Units also had small Christmas lights hanging from the wall. The holiday timing wasn’t lost on Debbie Maddox.
“It’s the greatest present we’ve ever had,” Maddox said. “This is going to be amazing. We’re speechless, really.”
For day one, Outsiders Inn staff helped tenants sign paperwork and discussed expectations. The community will allow couples and pets — two things shelters often prohibit. The site doesn’t allow illegal substances, while staff will help with substance abuse and behavioral health.
“It’s an opportunity for people to get their lives together,” said Jamie Spinelli, Vancouver’s homeless resources coordinator. “If they were using for whatever reason — for trauma, to stay awake — they have an opportunity to clean up here with support, instead of being kicked out of wherever they were.
“But poor behavior will not be allowed,” Spinelli added.
The staffers are mostly people who have experienced homelessness themselves, including co-founders Adam Kravitz and Ren Autrey. They’re familiar with the locals, Kravitz said.
“A lot of these folks we’re already working with,” Kravitz said. He said staff will have regular meetings with tenants, in group settings or one-on-one.
A handful of tenants moved in Thursday, though the site did not hit capacity. Officials said every shelter is booked, but some people need time to throw away some belongings or just process the upcoming change.
“Even though it’s a good transition — it’s a big change,” she said.
When one resident Polly became the first person to move in, another resident joked with her: “Do you have your elevator pass to the rooftop pool and the tiki bar?”
The city of Vancouver bought the metal shelters from Everett-based Pallet Shelter for $7,900 apiece. They come with waterproof mattresses, lights, heat — and a roof.
The shelters — white-colored and metal — will ease many of the inconveniences of living out of a tent, tenants said.
Staying warm in a tent has meant refilling propane every two days for Maddox and her boyfriend, Michael Iverson. She added that keeping belongings dry and phones charged have been constant challenges.
Not to mention, Maddox said, the couple now no longer has to fear facing another homeless sweeps.
“You can only take what you can hold,” she said. “It’s scary. And I’m so glad we’re not going to have to do that anymore. That’s one thing I’m glad to say goodbye to.”
Maddox, 36, has struggled with addiction after she was evicted from a residence in Tri-Cities, Wash., three years ago. She couch-surfed and lived out of tents. She recently found herself in Vancouver.
For her, and others now moving into shelters, the cul-de-sac was once a very different place.
For many months, it was much more a stereotypical homeless camp. Tents and makeshift structures flanked the road, with all manner of secondhand miscellany — such as bikes parts and chewed-up office chairs — strewn between.
“It’s not even close to the same place,” Maddox said.
Lamm’s new shelter wasn’t far from where he used to stake his tent. He remembered having to keep rats away with the business-end of a BB gun.
Outsiders Inn is contracted to run the site for at least one year. There won’t be hard deadlines to get people into housing, but staff have said they will encourage and help direct people to progress toward independent living, when possible.
Lamm was optimistic.
“This is a good stepping stone on how to be a good neighbor, on how to be a good tenant, on how to be a good person in your community,” he said.