Vancouver OKs overnight camping in public places

Unanimous vote by city council amends ordinance

By Amy Fischer, Columbian City Government Reporter

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Amending a Vancouver city ordinance to allow overnight camping in public places is just a “baby step” toward solving the city’s homeless troubles and lack of shelter space, citizens told the city council Monday.

“I don’t want to see the council put a bow on our problem and make it look all pretty by providing (camping) hours when we’re not addressing the real issues,” Hough neighborhood resident Heidi Owens said.

The council unanimously voted Monday to change Vancouver’s unlawful camping ordinance to allow camping in public places from 9:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. Such overnight camping previously had been a misdemeanor. The change wouldn’t affect park hours (parks close from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.) or laws prohibiting disorderly conduct, drinking in public, urinating in public and other health and safety issues.

The city’s legal staff recommended the change in response to a federal Department of Justice opinion, issued Aug. 8, on a case pending in federal court in Boise, Idaho. The opinion states that outlawing camping in all places and all times, including when shelter space is unavailable, is cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional. Basically, the opinion says, all people have a right to sleep.

Mayor Tim Leavitt said he realizes some residents aren’t happy about the change to the camping ordinance.

“We have to do this because we’re not going to win taking on the Supreme Court,” he said.

City Manager Eric Holmes emphasized that the ordinance revision is an interim measure while the city continues to look for solutions. Vancouver has a lack of toilets, showers and trash cans for the homeless — and an overwhelming need for beds.

Andy Silver, executive director of the Council for the Homeless, told the city council that 823 different people called the housing hotline this summer asking for emergency shelter. The agency was forced to say no to 722 of them — 88 percent — due to lack of shelter space, he said.

“Those folks have nowhere else to go,” Silver said. “I’m very optimistic that this is a step in the right direction, but I don’t want anyone to think this is the end of the road.”

Katherine Garrett, director of Share House, said that in the eyes of landlords, people who have three camping violations on their record might as well have a felony. Continuing to cite homeless people, fine them and jail them hinders their movement forward and keeps the cycle of homelessness going, she said.

“They don’t have a chance,” she said.

Councilor Bart Hansen said he didn’t want to see “an unnecessary amount of resources going into people who have a tent up.”

Police would not be doing “sweeps” of homeless camps, but they would respond to complaints from neighborhood residents and business people about problems such as fighting and drinking in public, Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain said. Even then, officers have discretion about handling situations.

“Our first go-to isn’t to enforce the law. Our first go-to is to gain compliance from people. I don’t see us immediately going out and citing somebody,” McElvain said. “We’re not going to ignore it. … But our priority starts with crimes against persons and then crimes against property.”