Until recently, a street corner near downtown Longview, Washington, was a patch of gravel, sucking mud and sprouting tents. It was a city-run campsite, meant to help unhoused people.
But to Nichole Castro, who used to stay in one of the tents, there wasn’t much help. Few services visited with the people who lived there. The city mostly arrived to pick up garbage and debris.
“It was just stupid. It was dumb,” Castro said. “It was like, you guys are wasting so much money for no reason.”
That’s changed. City leaders recently transformed the lot into tiny-home style transitional housing and renamed the site Hope Village. It’s the third of its kind in Southwest Washington opened in the last 18 months.
There are bathrooms, showers, laundry appliances and 50 aluminum-and-fiberglass sheds. Since December, 15 people have moved onto permanent housing, according to Longview staff.
Castro, whose shed is colorfully decorated with cartoons, is feeling more stable. She hopes it lasts long enough to get her into a house.
Unlike the other two tiny-home projects, both in Vancouver, Longview’s may already be short on time. City officials paid for it and expected the county and state officials to help, but the latter are now refusing.
Communities across the Northwest have increasingly pointed to homelessness and housing as the top issues they want government officials to solve, but Hope Village makes clear that finding cooperation at different levels of government to address problems is no simple task.
Hope Village has enough money to stay open for one year. Ruth Kendall, a Longview councilor who helped lead its construction, said the city needs help beyond that.
“We need funding,” Kendall said. “It’s not sustainable for the city to be funding it all out of the general fund.”
Trouble at the Alabama Street camp
To Kendall, the lot’s improvement should be apparent to anyone who saw it pocked by gravel and tents. For three years, it was a political conundrum known as the Alabama Street camp.
City leaders opened the camp in 2019. More and more tents had been popping up in popular places like the city’s Lake Sacajawea and around City Hall. Longview couldn’t legally move the tents until they opened the lot. Initially, they gave it a three-month permit.
The camp remained open for three years, in part because government operations slowed to a crawl as they prioritized COVID-19 response.
Some neighbors and nearby businesses saw a growing blight. Complaints of thefts and vandalism rose at City Hall meetings. Although, as reported by The Daily News in Longview, 911 activity in the area did not change significantly from years prior.
Castro remembered how she and her fellow campers felt like scapegoats.
“I mean, like, anything that happened within a 15-mile radius was blamed on the tent city,” Castro said.
Nevertheless, it was unsanitary. The 40-year-old, who prides herself on tidiness, described her peers treating the campsite like a landfill. Rats became visitors.
The conditions led the Longview City Council in August 2021 to declare a public health emergency. A large, public cleanup ensued.
Almost exactly a year later, the city had to do it again. This time, councilors like Kendall opted to change their approach. The city acted “aggressively,” Kendall said. It came at a cost.
Money earmarked for Hope Village diverted
Because of the declared health emergency, Longview officials were able to bypass some state-mandated processes, like government contracting rules.
They quickly went shopping, buying the 8-by-8-foot shelters, paving the lot and wiring it for electricity, and hiring the Salvation Army to be the on-site service provider. The upfront cost: $2.5 million.
For the ongoing costs, Hope Village will require at least $1 million a year. And that’s where city officials are concerned. The county and state government agencies that would normally help now refuse, either because they disagree with the project or they accuse Longview of abusing emergency powers.
Longview has twice asked for help from Cowlitz County, which controls a pot of money that’s earmarked for homeless-support projects. Cowlitz County refused both times.
Commissioner Arne Mortensen said the city has acted “intransigently” and ran roughshod over the public. He said he believes the tiny-home model is too expensive. He also argued Longview lacks a yardstick to measure whether it works.
“All these programs say they’re very successful, but they don’t define what ‘successful’ is,” Mortensen said. “If I take a person who is being held up by the welfare system and transition them into a taxpayer, then I’ve done a good thing. But they never look at it that way. They say, ‘We could have put them in jail, but look at this here, it’s less expensive.’”
The city saw doors slam shut in Olympia, too.
During the last legislative session, when lawmakers sliced and diced the state’s vast budget, there was a $2.5 million piece allotted to Hope Village. But it disappeared soon after Longview’s state senator discovered it.
According to Sen. Jeff Wilson, a Republican, it was late March when he was leafing through a packet that showed all the projects in his district set to get tax dollars. Then he noticed the earmark.
In an interview, Wilson said he checked with the other district representatives. Neither knew how the funding got penciled in. The city never directly asked its state delegates to help with Hope Village.
“I made it really clear to the other senators: ‘How the hell did this get on the [budget]?” Wilson said. “I told other senators that this is a huge, controversial issue in my community.”
To Wilson, Longview “went rogue” with its emergency powers. He said he would have supported Hope Village had it been “vetted with the public.” And seeing it suddenly in the budget appeared like another overstep to him.
“They went down this road, this path, chosen by themselves,” Wilson said of the Longview City Council. “Not with the support of Cowlitz County and not with the support of nearby communities.”
Senate Republicans eventually agreed with Wilson. They rerouted the earmark to a homeless shelter in Lewis County.
Indirectly, Wilson implicated one of the state budget-writers: Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center. Rivers doesn’t represent Longview, but she is its assistant city manager.
Rivers told OPB that she did put the money in the budget. Her purview as a budget writer sent money “far and wide” across Southwest Washington, she said. She sent $1 million for a new school roof in Skamania, for example, and some cash to the Port of Camas-Washougal.
Like Wilson, some senators discovered unexpected funding for projects in their district. Unlike Wilson, they took no issue. She said it appears like he was trying to torpedo the project.
“The only senator who chose to remove any money from their constituency was Sen. Wilson,” she said.
What’s next for Hope Village and other shelters
The fight over Hope Village isn’t a one-off. Even as homelessness grows in the Pacific Northwest, communities disagree on solutions and projects are imperiled.
In Portland, Mayor Ted Wheeler last week threatened to end the city’s partnership with Multnomah County as they disagreed on plans to spend $25 million toward homelessness.
Clackamas County recently reversed course on a plan to repurpose an old hotel into transitional housing. County Chair Tootie Smith flipped her vote after she said she “heard from the public ... that they needed more time.”
And even as Vancouver plans two more tiny-home style transitional shelters, city officials have often struggled to get buy-in from their local partners. Clark County Councilor Gary Medvigy has been a vocal skeptic, primarily viewing the projects as too expensive.
Medvigy recently told OPB that he now views the projects more favorably after city officials met with him May 10 for an intensive breakdown on costs.
“I don’t know what the perfect solution is,” Medvigy said. “Everyone recognizes we have to do more to eliminate these very unsafe and unsanitary pop-up encampments. The reality is we need to provide shelter of some kind.”
Medvigy added that Clark County plans to hold a workshop on setting up its own tiny home-style transitional shelter “within the next month or two.”
Meanwhile, Hope Village is in limbo. Like the encampment it replaced, city councilors fret over its future.
Ambling between the rows of aluminum-and-fiberglass shelters, Kendall, the Longview city councilor, said she remains disappointed other officials have refused to help.
“I would love to see this continue. We’re committed to doing it for a year, obviously,” she said. “I think it would be a great shame to lose it after a year.”
There are still some other options. Longview’s grant writers are searching elsewhere, she said. And a cohort recently flew to Washington, D.C., to ask congressional delegates to find money.
She acknowledged that critics are right to worry about how much Hope Village and other projects can cost. But, she argued, communities should back projects that reduce costly stints in jail and trips to the emergency room.
“I think you have to also figure in the cost of not doing it,” she said. “That’s not a cheap answer either. It’s much more expensive than this.”
There is no one-size-fits-all solution, she said. Hope Village works for some; other people prefer to sleep in their cars or stay in hotel rooms. She said Longview is open to other solutions too.
So far, Hope Village is working for Castro. She has a dog — a tough, white-colored mastiff named Sparkplug — which isn’t allowed in many traditional shelters.
Castro said Hope Village is not perfect. She worries the summer will be too hot. She also gripes to staff about curfew.
But, she conceded, “they’re here to help you do what you need to get housing.” She said she’s optimistic she won’t be there for much longer.