Vancouver’s homeless population shifts

Camp near Share House disbanded; many find shelter, but hundreds still in need

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

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By The Numbers

24: Unlawful camping tickets given out since Nov. 3.

24: Children who stayed at the emergency overflow shelter Tuesday night.

40: Tiny houses slated for an emergency homeless village off Mill Plain Boulevard.

$250: Fine for unlawful camping.

300 to 400: Estimated number of unsheltered people in Clark County.

Looking at the empty sidewalks surrounding Share House in downtown Vancouver — not a tent in sight — it’s difficult to envision that 150 people used to stay here just weeks ago. The tent community fully disbanded last month after a revised camping ordinance was enacted, and the area was cleaned up by city employees.

Local shelters are full, and the Council for the Homeless won’t extend the motel stays beyond mid-December due to lack of funding and the housing circumstances of some of the people using the vouchers, said Charlene Welch, the agency’s development and community relations manager. That complicates matters for those living outside.

“Even though there isn’t a tent city physically around Share House, there’s still a lot of people who are homeless in our community,” said Amy Reynolds, director of programs at Share.

The concentration around Share House comprised those who are visibly homeless. It didn’t reflect the actual number of homeless people, Reynolds said. The Council for the Homeless estimates there are 300 to 400 unsheltered people in Clark County, though the exact number is hard to pin down.

Homelessness hasn’t ended; the camping ordinance just dispersed people, Reynolds said.

When the tent community disbanded on Nov. 2, some of the estimated 150 campers got into one of the Winter Hospitality Overflow shelters at local churches; nine particularly vulnerable households got motel vouchers from the Council for the Homeless; and a few eventually got into apartments.

“The rest have just disbanded into the community,” Reynolds said.

Share outreach staff have connected with pockets of people camping together, she said. The groups are smaller, maybe five to 10 people, and they’re more hidden. People are moving around and staying in more obscure areas so they don’t get tickets for unlawful camping. Under the revised city ordinance, camping in public isn’t allowed between 6:31 a.m. and 9:29 p.m.

Since the law went into effect Oct. 21, Vancouver police have issued 24 unlawful camping tickets to 18 different people, according to Clark County District Court. The ordinance wasn’t enforced until Nov. 3. Most recently, eight tickets were given out on Dec. 2.

The city council unanimously voted in September to alter the ordinance to conform to a federal Department of Justice opinion stating that it was unconstitutional to outlaw camping in all places and all times, including when shelter space was unavailable, because people have a right to sleep. There are still signs about the camping ordinance posted along the fence on West 12th Street, and there’s still some litter strewn along guardrails on Lincoln Avenue.

Police officers have responded to 911 calls about people camping outside of ordinance hours in the waterfront redevelopment site, near the Veteran’s Memorial Wall and near the railroad tracks, said Kim Kapp, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Police Department. Camping is also illegal in city parks.

Officers are continuing to educate people about the ordinance, give out warnings and progressing to citations when the warnings aren’t heeded, Kapp said.

The men’s shelter at St. Paul Lutheran Church is at capacity, as well as the emergency space in Share House’s kitchen, Reynolds said. On Tuesday night, 44 people — including 24 children — stayed at the family shelter, located at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Orchards. Normally, the church hosts up to 42 people, but capacity can be stretched to 50.

Reynolds hopes that the day shelter slated to open next week at Friends of the Carpenter will help those still outdoors to get connected to services. Then, there’s the emergency village of tiny houses coming to a church next to the Garrison Square shopping center. Officials have also been talking about opening a more permanent homeless shelter and are determining what the capacity of that facility would be.