Last month, the City of Vancouver published a report to measure the impact of its first “Safe Stay Community,” a homeless shelter facility called the Outpost which opened last December. But unlike traditional, congregate shelters, the Outpost consists of 20 modular, shed-like structures to house single individuals or couples experiencing homelessness. It is being managed around the clock by Outsiders Inn, a local homeless services provider that is staffed entirely by people with lived experiences of homelessness. According to city officials, within the first six months of its operation, 30 percent of the 46 residents who are unhoused at the Outpost transitioned to housing, and 11 of them found jobs. Police calls and visits to the area also decreased 30 percent compared to the previous year. Joining us are Adam Kravitz, the executive director of Outsiders Inn, and Jamie Spinelli, the homeless response coordinator for the City of Vancouver.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. More people have gotten into permanent housing and gotten jobs and there have been fewer calls to police and fire. Those are just some of the results from the first six months of data from Vancouver’s first Safe Stay Community. It’s called the Outpost. It opened last December with 2020 modular shed-like homes for people experiencing homeless. It’s managed around the clock by Outsiders Inn, a local homeless services provider that is staffed by people who used to be homeless themselves. A second small village opened in the spring. A third is now in the works. Adam Kravitz is the executive director of Outsiders In. Jamie Spinelli is Vancouver’s homeless response coordinator. They both join us now, welcome to TOL.
Guests: Thank you for having me.
Miller: Adam Kravitz, I want to start with you. As I noted, the first Safe Stay Village opened in Vancouver in late December. Can you describe what it looks like?
Kravitz: It’s an abandoned, basically abandoned city street with a cul de sac at the end, and we have a fence and the 20 modular units, like you said, along with an office space and then three outdoor tents that are set up for the kitchen area, for eating, for meeting with folks, along with our porta potties and our dumpsters and water. We have a small little kitchen area with a coffee pot, microwave, those kinds of things, fridges.
Miller: Jamie Spinelli, why was this chosen as the first site?
Jamie Spinelli: One of the unique things I think about this site in particular is that there was a large homeless encampment on that property, the exact same space. It was an unutilized piece of property, it was city owned. It’s very close to transit, it’s close to services, it’s easy for providers to get to. So it really made sense to turn something that was maybe less healthy, into something much much healthier.
Miller: Adam Kravitz, how many of the people who had been camping at the site unofficially came back after it was turned into this tiny home village?
Kravitz: Well, we basically filled up the units with folks that had been literally camping there. So all that were invited showed up, except for possibly two, I believe?
Miller: So the same population but in a different kind of community?
Miller: Can you give us a sense for the services that you provide there?
Kravitz: Well, first and foremost, our staff is all folks with lived experience, so we’re peers, and we provide 24 hour peer support. That falls under encouragement, goal planning, supporting, sharing with folks our understanding of how to navigate resources and our understanding of how to navigate the barriers that are getting in folks’ way, such as IDs, documentation, social security cards, food stamps, insurance, all those things that having access and stability were needed before they could get those things.
Miller: What do you think is different when people who have themselves been homeless are leading an effort like this? How does it change the services or the vibe in practice?
Kravitz: I love that you said ‘vibe’. It’s almost as though we might speak a different language because we’ve been through a similar experience. Folks immediately understand that we do know what they’re going through at some level, and it makes the trust and a rapport happen at a lot quicker rate. And then we can really start to discover more about an individual and build that relationship and build community.
Miller: Jamie Spinelli, given that the population is so similar, as we heard, almost everybody who had been there before transitioned and then stayed there after it turned into a sanctioned tiny home village, how do you explain the 30% drop in police calls or office officer initiated visits? What made the difference? And I should say this is from comparing two 6 month periods, January to June of 2021, [and] January to June of this year. It’s the same people. Why were there fewer reasons for police officers to be there?
Spinelli: So I think it’s actually a variety of reasons. One, we’ve created significantly more stability for the people who are living there. So far fewer need for emergency services. But I think also when you have an encampment anywhere, not just at that location, when you have an encampment anywhere, and things go wrong in a neighborhood, it’s very easy to blame the encampment for ALL of the things that are happening in the neighborhood, even though it’s likely not even the majority of it that’s happening due to the encampment. That’s something that we saw in that neighborhood specifically. So last year specifically, I think there were several shootings. There were some other things that happened in the area, and what you see on social media as well as the calls to the police, are reports that these crimes are happening because of the camp that’s there. It’s the people living in the camp that are committing these crimes. So officers will go visit, just to follow up on calls. But I think this shows that the bulk of that was actually not from those folks, right? Because we’ve got who are inside this site who are now part of the neighbors that will call the cops if something outside of the site is taking place. There have been situations in which people who are housed have come and harassed the camp itself. So I think it’s really been an eye opener for hopefully a lot of people in the neighborhood, it was not actually most of the folks who are in that camp that were committing the crimes.
Miller: Adam Kravitz, do you get the sense that the relationship between people who now live in this site and and they’re perhaps at this point, long term housed neighbors, have those relationships changed?
Kravitz: Oh, absolutely. When we moved in, we introduced ourselves to all of our neighbors and there was a lot of trepidation and a lot of concern and immediately within the first two months, we got calls and we were sharing our concern about the neighborhood and someone outside of our camp and outside of their apartment complex, and it was neither of our our tenants at either place. And so now we have community where we actually share information and they’ve come over and supported us with meals as well.
Miller: Jamie Spinelli, according to the recent report that came out, 14 residents transitioned to housing, 10 are currently working with case managers to get housing. But another 11 had what are described as negative exits from the program in the report. What does that mean? What’s a negative exit?
Spinelli: So it’s someone who has either been asked to leave or someone who has opted to leave before completing a program, or moving on to something more permanent.
Miller: Adam Kravitz, what does it take for someone to have to be asked to leave?
Kravitz: It actually takes quite a bit, unless it would be some kind of major violation, which I don’t believe we’ve really had. A lot of times it’s behavioral issues or substance use issues. And people are given options. We are an organization [that] believes [in] really building that relationship and giving people many options, until the decision is ultimately usually theirs, that they would want to leave and not try to adhere within the code of conduct. Most of the time it’s behavioral issues, and folks know that they’re welcome to come back. That’s one of our things, is we may have some excess, but the majority of those folks know what we do and how we do it and agree, and know that they can come back when they’re ready.
Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now about the Safe Stay communities or villages that are up and running in Vancouver right now. Jamie Spinelli is Vancouver’s homeless response coordinator. Adam Kravitz is the executive director of Outsiders Inn, which manages the city’s first Safe Stay Community. The first one is called the Outpost. Adam, my understanding is that, among other services, you offer mail for residents. How does that work?
Kravitz: Well, as far as Outsiders Inn goes, we have actually four programs running, and the 5th one coming in the during the season of wintertime. So totally we have two shelters and outreach program. And then yes, we provide mail service for anyone in Clark County who needs to get mail delivered to our PO box. And then that is six days a week, folks can pick that up at two different locations. And on top of that within our shelter programs, the folks that are in the shelter programs, they use those same PO boxes when we get their mail to them.
Miller: So I mentioned in my intro the decrease in calls to police access to employment or housing or treatment services. Adam Kravitz, how do you measure success?
Kravitz: I measure success every week during our community meetings, where folks really get to share, share their journey where they’re at, they get to build a better understanding of how to make better decisions, to think about where [and] what next steps are. We talk about so many things, whether it be community issues, or it’s just things that people really want to talk about. I think we build community because we tear down the barriers of us and them. We’re not there providing services for folks. We are there supporting folks 24/7. And then there’s a difference in the way we do that, because it’s very lateral. It’s we are them and they are us. And then we feel that and we show that.
Miller: Jamie Spinelli, these aren’t huge communities. 20 units is about what we’re talking about, and if they’re doubled up it could be 40 people, but they’re not necessarily all couples. How do you think about the size of a site in terms of the likelihood of success, and the likelihood that it’s going to mesh well with the neighborhood?
Spinelli: I think size is important. It’s very easy to want to serve as many people as humanly possible, with the fewest dollars as possible. But I think it’s also very important to focus on the quality of work being done in a space. And in my experience, having it to be a smaller, more manageable size is kind of better for everyone, the provider, the people living inside of it as well as the surrounding neighborhood. When we had the navigation center opened in the neighborhood a few years ago, one of the things that we repeatedly heard from neighbors was, we want to do our part as a community issue, but this is the only day center in town. So it’s drawing in the entire homeless community. And as a small neighborhood, we can wrap our arms around 30 or 40 people. But trying to wrap our arms around 200 is too much. So that was in mind, when we were creating these spaces and determining how big or small they should be.
Miller: That makes sense. But what logically follows then, is that you’re going to simply need more of these sites, given just the enormity of the problems, not just in Vancouver, but all around the west and in some respects, all around the country. As I noted, a second safe stay community opened in the spring, and then there’s a third that is in the works right now on Vancouver’s west side. What’s the timeline for the third community?
Spinelli: Timeline for the third is actually gonna be probably pretty similar to what it was for this one. So we’re looking at hopefully a December opening, hopefully earlier in December than two days before Christmas. But that’s the goal, before the end of the year.
Miller: Is siting still a challenge, or have the early successes of your first communities made it easier to sell this to housed neighbors?
Spinelli: So yes to both. We prefer to utilize city-owned properties or publicly-owned properties for these as much as possible. But what I have learned since becoming a city employee last year sometime, is that the city actually doesn’t own as much property that could be utilized for something like this as I had previously thought, just as an outreach worker. So we do have that limitation, but yes, I do also think that the success of these has absolutely helped to sell this to community and potential property owners to partner for opening a site.
Miller: Adam Kravitz, this is not at this point a unique model. We’ve talked about this in Portland and in other cities now for a little while. But you are further along than some places. What advice would you give to other communities, in terms of how to set up and how to manage a local solution like this?
Kravitz: I think definitely tap into the workforce that is readily available within every community, and that’s your peers, your recovery coaches, your folks in recovery, who have gotten their way through it. I think that’s one part of it, is there is a workforce for people that really need to be recognized and put to work, and are struggling with the barriers of coming out of homelessness. Second piece I would say, is for providers to look at homelessness is something that deserves its own recovery path, and letting people know that as you’re stepping out of homelessness, it was trauma, it was real and you deserve some time to stabilize and heal. And no matter how long you’ve been out there, and for most people, any amount of time is too long.
Miller: Adam Kravitz and Jamie Spinelli, thanks very much.
Guests: Thanks so much.
Miller: Adam Kravitz is the executive director of Outsiders Inn. Jamie Spinelli is the homeless response coordinator for the City of Vancouver.
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