Church received threat of lawsuit; backers vow to find new location

AdamKravitz and BillRitchie AmandaCowen TheColumbian

By Amy Fischer, Columbian City Government Reporter


A Vancouver church that had agreed to host a village of 40 tiny houses for the homeless has pulled out of the project, leaving organizers searching for a new location.

Safe Harbor Church of the Nazarene received a threat of a lawsuit, the church said on its Facebook page, adding, “We do not wish to fight with our neighbors, so we made the painful decision to withdraw from the project.”

The church’s pastor, David Edwards, previously said the Council for the Homeless and its partners could build a temporary, emergency village for 50 homeless people this winter in an empty field behind the church at 8100 E. Mill Plain Blvd., which is next to the Garrison Square shopping center. Bordered by 82nd Avenue, which dead-ends at an apartment complex, the Safe Harbor church site was chosen because it’s close to a hospital, a bus line and shopping.

Andy Silver, executive director of the Council for the Homeless, said he received the news Wednesday morning.

All the partners involved are still “100 percent committed to making this happen,” Silver said.

“We just need that last ingredient to move forward,” he said. “What we’re focusing on is that we still have all the pieces to pull this together, except for one.”

All of the necessary information is compiled to explain the project and its purpose to potential hosts, Silver said.

“We want to get this up and running as soon as possible, and this will certainly slow it down, but this is a fantastic community, and I know people will step up and help us locate it,” he said.

Bill Ritchie, founding pastor of Crossroads Community Church and chairman of the Clark County Commission on Aging, came up with the “tiny village” concept in October after reading news stories about people camping by the Share House homeless shelter in tents and mobile huts.

Aimed at housing the most vulnerable of the homeless, the village of 40 insulated garden sheds with windows and locking doors would accommodate single women, adults with no minor children and elderly single men. It would have six portable toilets and two large, heated trailers for eating, computing, meeting with caseworkers and hanging out. Tenants wouldn’t be allowed to have visitors, but pets would be permitted.

Clark County would provide the majority of funding for operations, which are expected to be between $200,000 to $250,000.

The Council for the Homeless would select the village’s tenants, and church groups would be recruited to serve hot meals every night. (Food can’t be prepared on site because there isn’t a commercial kitchen.) Council for the Homeless would contract with Consumer Voices Are Born, a mental health agency, to provide peer-to-peer support at the village, which would have a full-time manager living on the site in a trailer to enforce strict rules.

Ideally, the village would have 1.5 acres of flat land that’s near a bus line with good service, Silver said. The first choice would be to link up with the faith-based community because helping the needy is part of their mission, and they have volunteers available. But if no churches have property that fits the bill, a privately owned piece of land could be rented for the project, he said, adding that using private property would require extra steps such as a city zoning change.

The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act says local governments are limited in their ability to regulate religious land, said Jonathan Young, assistant city attorney for Vancouver. Because the city’s regulation of church property stops at serious health and safety issues, religious institutions are the only establishments that legally could provide a place for the homeless to camp without first amending city zoning codes, he said.

On Wednesday, Ritchie said Safe Harbor church “very much believes in the project” and they’re sorry it “just didn’t work.”

“Of course, we’re disappointed,” he said. “We put a ton of time into that.”

However, Ritchie is confident they’ll lock down another site for the village.

“The project will happen,” he said.

A few neighbors have voiced their opposition to the project being sited at Safe Harbor. In a Dec. 9 email to project organizers, The Columbian, the city and the county, resident Mandy Eguma questioned whether it was appropriate to have a homeless village close to schools, parks, neighborhoods and businesses, which she said would put children and community members at risk.

“This type of temporary housing project MUST be located outside the city limits,” she wrote. “Improving the temporary housing options for homelessness is a message to Clark County residence (sic) that we support homelessness and will build more housing options. … Other counties may see this as an invitation to bus their homeless population here.”

Silver said Eguma’s argument doesn’t make sense.

“I think it’s absurd,” he said. “There’s absolutely no evidence for it. … People who are homeless don’t move from here to Wisconsin because they read in the paper that some town in Wisconsin was going to open an emergency shelter to meet the demand.”

Noting that Vancouver had the highest rental increases in the nation last year, Silver said people are homeless because they can’t afford housing on the amount of money they make.

“And that’s people in our own community,” he said.

The Council for the Homeless keeps a database on its clients, and about 85 percent of the people in the system listed their last address in the local area, he said.

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