Vancouver might decriminalize camping

Councilors express frustration at lack of progress on issues

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

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The Vancouver City Council may decriminalize the city’s unlawful camping ordinance. The current ordinance making it illegal to camp in public between 6:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. is a misdemeanor but could be demoted to a civil infraction.

Since infractions are punishable by fines — and most homeless people would not be able to pay such a fine — the councilors discussed during a city council workshop Monday whether there are alternative penalties for camping outside of lawful hours.

“Is there community service? Is there any other way of putting something in there that’s not just financial?” said Councilor Jack Burkman.

Next month, the city attorney’s office will present a couple of options to councilors.

Revising the unlawful camping ordinance was last debated during an April 24 workshop in which advocates for the homeless urged the council to extend lawful camping hours to give people more time to sleep and to set up and break down their camps. However, at Monday’s city council workshop, none of the councilors were inclined to change the hours. Another idea that councilors knocked down was having ordinance violators prove there was no available shelter space when they were cited.

Chad Eiken, the city’s director of community and economic development, said a big barrier for people is that they can’t carry all of their possessions with them. Same as the camping ordinance, people cannot store belongings in public between 6:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m.

Eiken said a group that meets monthly to address Vancouver’s homelessness issues talked in depth about how to provide open-air storage lockers. The city is looking at how other cities have implemented storage facilities. How they are accessed, where they’re placed and how to connect people who use them to other services are some details to consider.

The Vancouver Police Department did emphasis patrols of the camping and storage ordinances, which had “limited success,” said Lt. Greg Raquer. Police made 11 arrests, wrote some citations and addressed safety issues at encampments around the city.

The Vancouver Police Department and other city departments are involved in regular cleanups on the streets surrounding Share House, the men’s homeless shelter on the west edge of downtown Vancouver. During each sweep, 12 pickup loads of personal property and debris is collected. Property is stored by the city for 90 days. The most recent cleanup was Wednesday.

“That was very successful but only for a short run,” Raquer said. He added that he drove by Share House on Monday and saw that people were camped out with the same property they had removed on Wednesday.

Monday’s workshop was intended to help the city council discuss and possibly move forward on other issues related to homelessness: the lack of bathrooms and showers for the homeless; and the siting and construction of a new day center. However, not much progress has been made since they last brought up those issues.

Share House stopped offering showers to people who don’t live there and no longer lets people use its bathrooms outside of meal times. So, the city is discussing possibly installing port-a-potties in the area, maybe just for a couple of months.

“Right now, it’s really just an untenable situation with the human waste that’s occurring at that facility,” Eiken said.

However, he added, in the past such facilities have been damaged and vandalized.

Every day about 40 to 50 people visit the current day center at Friends of the Carpenter, which cannot accommodate showers or laundry facilities. The contract with Friends of the Carpenter was extended through December while the city explores possible locations for a new day center, whether that means renovating an existing building or finding land for new construction. The city had identified land across from Share House, but that’s no longer considered a viable site.

“Today, sitting up here I had a huge moment of deflation,” said Councilor Alishia Topper, adding that these same issues have been discussed since she joined the council in 2014. “Yet, we’re currently chasing people around town with their carts and their belongings.”

She’s disappointed that efforts to ease the homelessness crisis haven’t moved forward.

Councilor Ty Stober expressed similar frustrations. He said the city seems to continually run into the issue of NIMBY-ism when it comes to adding any services for the homeless.

“We seem to be struggling with a clean path forward here to deal with that,” he said. Stober added that if the city tries to satisfy everyone, services will never be located.