Sifton residents clean up homeless camp, remain watchful

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

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Homelessness leaves a trail across Clark County. These piles of moldy sleeping bags, flattened tents, broken coolers, picked-over garbage and dirty syringes bear witness to how the people who lived there scrounged to survive.

The Sifton Neighborhood Association cleaned up one such camp last month, while the remains of another continue to litter the banks of Tenney Creek in Hazel Dell.

Who knows how many more are spread around the county. The camps manage to be both out in the open and invisible at the same time. Neighborhoods worry they pose a threat to safety.

About 1,820 people were homeless in Clark County when the Council for the Homeless did its one-day count in 2013, the most recent numbers available. Most were staying in shelters or with family and friends. But 190 were categorized as "unsheltered." They must find a place to rest their heads each night. Sometimes that means pitching a tent in a vacant lot, amid shrubs or behind fences.

The Clark County Sheriff's Office has noticed more such camps since the recession, said Sgt. Shane Gardner.

"After Alycia Nipp was murdered, it became a great concern for the community," Gardner said. "Before that, the community was willing to tolerate it. Now any time a transient camp pops up in Hazel Dell, we have to move into high speed."

Nipp, 13, was stabbed to death in 2009 by a homeless sex offender squatting in vacant houses in Hazel Dell land then owned by Hinton Development Corp.

Blue tarps flagged the camp off Northeast Fourth Plain Boulevard near 124th Avenue, said Christie BrownSilva, president of the Sifton Neighborhood Association.

"If you had really been looking for it, you could see it driving by," she said. "You get these little pockets in the neighborhoods. It's not unique to ours."

Property owners are often unaware anyone is living on their vacant land, Gardner said.

"Our hope is we can make contact with the people, and explain, 'This is private property. What resources are you looking for that I can direct you to?' We tell people about shelters and warm meals. But for some of these people, it's about being self-reliant," he said.

The Sifton camp came to the sheriff's office's attention when a woman staying there was assaulted by a camp mate.

"The problem with this camp wasn't the destitute people. It was that they were victimizing each other," Gardner said. "If there was a homeless camp and the property owner said it's fine, and truly they weren't bothering anyone, and there was no illegal activity, we're not going to boot them out and kick them while they're down."

The Sifton Neighborhood Association worked for a month to organize the Feb. 22 cleanup. Deputies Robin Yakhour and Scott Bain, WSU Vancouver alumni, Waste Connections and the environmental company NRC assisted the neighbors. The group cleared away trash, syringes and human waste.

"It's a small piece to a bigger puzzle," BrownSilva said. "Just because we cleaned something up doesn't mean we solved any problems. That doesn't mean it couldn't come back to that same location or somewhere close by."