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Aug. 16, 2022

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Homeless people break camp as city enforces ordinance

Tent city dissipates as city, volunteers attempt to help most vulnerable

By , Columbian City Government Reporter
4 Photos
Police Cpl. Stuart Hemstock, center, and other officers work with homeless people Monday morning as they seek to enforce the city's camping law.
Police Cpl. Stuart Hemstock, center, and other officers work with homeless people Monday morning as they seek to enforce the city's camping law. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Dozens of homeless people broke down their tents and packed up their belongings without incident Monday morning in west Vancouver as police began enforcing the city’s illegal camping ordinance around 10 a.m.

Police didn’t arrest anyone or issue citations related to camping. However, one person was arrested on suspicion of methamphetamine possession and five others were arrested on warrants, police said. No vehicles were towed for camping-related offenses, although officers placed warning notices on several cars near the Share House shelter at 1115 W. 13th St.

Roughly a dozen police officers and a few social service workers walked the streets Monday, distributing motel vouchers to the most vulnerable, such as the elderly, disabled, and physically and mentally ill. In particular, vulnerable homeless people who own dogs or cats were targeted for vouchers because shelters won’t accept people with pets, said Andy Silver, Council for the Homeless executive director. In all, the Council for the Homeless issued motel vouchers to four couples and five single women, he said.

Church groups hauled away a few homeless people’s small wood-and-fiberglass huts on a truck to other locations. Discarded blankets, clothing, bottles and cans, food debris and shopping carts were piled on the sidewalks. Several people agreed to store some of their property at Share House and Friends of the Carpenter, Vancouver Police Department spokeswoman Kim Kapp said.

As of 11:30 a.m., the situation remained peaceful, and at least half of the campers had voluntarily moved on.

“I think it’s a very cooperative environment,” Police Cmdr. Amy Foster said.

The enforcement effort was timed to coordinate with Monday’s opening of additional shelter overflow space at Share House and local churches. However, the problem remains of where the homeless can go during daylight hours until a day center opens in mid-December at the Friends of the Carpenter’s building. There, homeless people will be able to do laundry, take showers, get their mail and charge electronic devices.

In addition, the faith-based community is making plans to open a temporary day and night emergency shelter to increase capacity for the homeless while local agencies work toward permanent solutions, such as building more affordable housing, Silver said.

The revised camping ordinance, which prohibits camping in public spaces except for between 9:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., went into effect Oct. 21. Last week, police passed out fliers alerting campers that starting Monday, they would begin ordering the removal of all people and their personal property, including tents and shelters. Social service agencies began conducting mental health, drug addiction and housing assessments on the street, as well as arranging for shelter bed space.

The congregation of so many homeless in one place presented an opportunity to connect people with services and encourage them to seek transitional housing, Officer Tyler Chavers said.

How to help: Hotel vouchers for homeless

The Council for the Homeless needs the community’s help in paying for hotel vouchers to immediately house Vancouver’s most vulnerable homeless residents. Those who would like to contribute may send a check to Council for the Homeless, 2500 Main St., Vancouver, WA 98660. Write “motel voucher” on the memo line. Donations also can be made online at www.councilforthehomeless.org/donate.

“We knew we weren’t going to arrest ourselves out of this situation,” he said.

Early last month, city officials had announced they would take a compassionate approach to enforcement, hoping the homeless would begin to voluntarily follow the law.

“What we saw was the opposite,” City Manager Eric Holmes said Friday.

The small encampment around Share House soon swelled to nearly 150 people at more than 80 campsites. Among them were up to 30 drug and sex traffickers who had descended upon the camp to take advantage of the homeless, Silver said.

“They see this situation as a way to recruit people who are desperate,” he said.

Police repeatedly responded to the camp for reports of assaults, open drug use and prostitution, Kapp said. Armed volunteers began patrolling the camp at night, adding to the city’s unease. On top of that, the encampment’s size suggested a sense of permanence, and it was generating trash and human waste that became a health and sanitation concern.

“You combine all of those things, and we came to the conclusion that we needed to step into a more rigorous enforcement stance,” Holmes said.

Under the city ordinance adopted in 1997, camping or storing camping equipment in public places had been a misdemeanor at all times. Under the revised rules, people can pitch their tents at night, but camping in public isn’t allowed from 6:31 a.m. to 9:29 p.m. Parks remain off-limits to camping because they close from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.

The city council unanimously voted Sept. 14 to change the ordinance in response 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.

Amy M.E. Fischer: 360-735-4508; amy.fischer@columbian.com; twitter.com/amymefischer

Columbian City Government Reporter

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