Representatives of Vancouver’s business community, downtown and neighborhoods offered the city council their help Monday in finding solutions to the city’s homeless problem — and as quickly as possible.
“Leaving people to the streets is not our final option here,” said John McKibbon, speaking on behalf of Identity Clark County, a nonprofit business advocacy group, during the council’s public hearing. “We do want to be involved, and we do want to help.”
A growing tent city in the west end of downtown has added to the collective sense of urgency in creating additional shelter space, sanitary facilities and services for the homeless, especially now that police stopped enforcing a city ban against overnight camping earlier this month. The city council is holding a workshop Oct. 5 to discuss progress it’s making with community partners on the issue.
Monday, the council reaffirmed its Sept. 14 vote to amend 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.
During the public hearing Monday evening, Richard Bryleu told the council that police should show up at the homeless camp surrounding his property in the Esther Short neighborhood at 6:30 a.m. to encourage people to pack up and move along.
“It should not be an easy life,” Bryleu said. “‘Oh boy, I can go into Share House, I can get free food, I can hang out with my friends and my enemies.'”
But, he said, “it’s never going to go away. I know that. Not completely.”
As of January, there were 662 homeless people in Clark County, of which 208 weren’t sheltered, according to the annual Point-in-Time Count, an unscientific census of homeless people that’s taken on a single day. In the last two years, 6,516 people sought emergency shelter in Vancouver, of which, 82 percent were turned away because of a lack of shelter space, City Attorney Bronson Potter said, citing statistics from the Council for the Homeless.
Monday afternoon, Vancouver city leaders got a close-up view of the situation as they walked the blocks around the Share House shelter, 1115 W. 13th St. Accompanied by police, Mayor Tim Leavitt, Councilor Alishia Topper and City Manager Eric Holmes observed dozens of tents, tarps and bicycles lining the sidewalks and fences on West 12th and 13th streets, Lincoln Avenue, Jefferson Street and King Street. People milled around. Trash blew through the gutters.
“It’s as bad as it’s been in years,” observed Vancouver Police Department Cmdr. Amy Foster.
Holmes, who drives through the area several times a week, agreed.
“Three months ago, it was different. Three weeks ago, it was different,” he said.
Troy Johns, owner of Urban NW Homes, said transients frequently defecate on the doorstep of his West 13th Street office building, shower with the building’s outdoor faucets and throw their garbage next to the trash cans he’d set out. Johns pointed to the cars parked along the street that hadn’t moved in months. People were living in them, he said.
Foster said it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Under city ordinance, vehicles can’t park in one spot for more than 24 hours or they can be tagged and towed, she said. But they have nowhere to go, and forcing them to move just transfers the problem from one spot to another, Holmes said.
Topper stopped to talk to Calvin Chastang, who lives in a tent on 12th Street. She asked him, what was the solution to the homeless problem?
“Give everybody a million dollars,” he said, bursting into laughter.
“There is no solution,” said Chastang, 52. “Some of them want to be here. Some of them get stuck. … Once you get there, it’s hard to get out.”
Leavitt wondered where all the people were coming from, and why they were showing up there.
Foster said it was likely they’d already been living in Vancouver, but in hidden spots. For instance, there had been a large camp along the riverfront until construction on the downtown waterfront project began this year. Now they were coming out into the open, she said.
“It’s going to take everyone to come together and find a good solution,” Topper said.
Leavitt said until the city and its partners get a day shelter established where people can shower, the city should set up expectations that the homeless pick up after themselves. Residents of the Hough neighborhood just a few blocks a way had been cleaning up the trash. Johns said he’d certainly collected his fair share of it.
“Seeing what’s going on out here really puts an impetus on the community to figure out an alternative,” Leavitt said. “We obviously cannot continue to allow this to grow on our streets of West Vancouver.”