In response to a newly issued federal Department of Justice opinion, the Vancouver City Council will consider today changing the city’s unlawful camping ordinance to allow camping in public places from 9:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.
Under the current city ordinance adopted in 1997, camping or storing camping equipment in public places is a misdemeanor.
On Aug. 8, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice issued a statement on a case pending in federal court in Boise, Idaho, regarding illegal camping. The statement takes the position that outlawing camping in all places and at all times when shelter space is unavailable is cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional.
On Friday, Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes said the city hopes to address technical legal issues so its camping ordinance remains viable if police should need to use it. People are already camping around town, he noted. The ordinance is an interim measure while the city continues to look for solutions to its homeless problem in collaboration with other partners, he said.
“No matter what we do, the fact is, there’s a homeless issue,” Holmes said. “If we do nothing, there’s a homeless issue. Doing nothing is not an option.”
Don’t expect a tent city to spring up in Esther Short Park if the council adopts the amendment. The amendment wouldn’t affect park hours (parks close from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.) or health and safety laws prohibiting disorderly conduct, drinking in public, public disturbances, urinating in public or obstructing streets or sidewalks, according to city documents.
Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain instructed his department last week not to enforce the ban on overnight camping — which he acknowledged officers haven’t been aggressively cracking down on, anyway. On average, police issue nine citations a month for illegal camping issues, usually related to nuisance behaviors such as urination or defecation in the doorways of businesses and strewing trash around, he said.
Vancouver police are operating with limited resources, and public camping isn’t necessarily always the highest-priority issue they deal with, he said.
Also, “There’s an acknowledgement that it’s human nature to sleep at some point in time in the day, so just to say people shouldn’t sleep just because they’re homeless doesn’t make sense,” McElvain said. “If we had enough shelter space and there’s more vacancy, then we would be offering those services to people so they wouldn’t be sleeping in public.”
The chief didn’t envision a sudden wave of homeless camps cropping up in new places. People’s current behaviors probably won’t change much, he said.
The annual Point-in-Time Count, an unscientific census of homeless people that’s taken on a single day every January, counted 662 homeless people in Clark County in 2015. The number of chronically homeless in Clark County rose from 80 in 2014 to 103 this year. Experts say that rise is an indicator of the tightness of the local housing market, with apartment vacancies generally hovering around 2 percent.
Because the handful of local shelters is not able to accommodate everyone, homeless people often spill into public places such as parks, cars, sidewalks and doorways. The problem has become more visible in recent months, prompting advocates for the homeless to rally for more shelter space and services.
The 7 p.m. council meeting is at Vancouver City Hall, 415 W. Sixth St.