“When things are damaging the environment I have to treat people the same,” he said.
Then there’s the matter of the campers, whom he also worries about. Among other things, he worries about them drinking the water of Burnt Bridge Creek, which has a history of fecal coliform bacteria, and their difficulty in getting medical attention should they need it.
The city has cleaned out several of the camps and cleared vegetation. But Bracchi is bothered by what he said are sometimes monthslong delays between when he reports them and when the camps are actually removed.
He said he initially leaned on 311, the nonemergency number for Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency, Vancouver police and other city departments to address the issue. He’s since taken his complaints to the city manager’s office and to city councilors, but he said little has changed.
“The city says, ‘Our hands are tied; we’re following what we’re supposed to do.’ Well, why does the camping ordnance exist?” he said. “Cleaning up a camp after Day Two or Day Three might cost a couple hundred bucks, but after six months people just keep hauling in stuff.”
Under the city’s camping ordinance, it’s legal to camp on most publicly owned property within the city limits between 9:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. However, camping in parks or building a fire is illegal. Parks close nightly from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
“The city should do the right thing, but it’s a pretty hard decision,” Bracchi said. “Do we offer some place where people can camp where no environmental destruction can be done? If we enforce the law we have to tell them to camp on the sidewalk, pick up all their stuff and stay mobile.”
Jonathan Young, Vancouver’s chief assistant city attorney, said like homelessness itself, removing a homeless encampment isn’t a simple situation. City workers have to first identify what objects are and aren’t abandoned, and that can take time. If the property is not abandoned then the city has to give the owners time to remove it.
He said it’s common for people to see tents, tarps and backpacks on the ground, and expect the city is going to immediately clean it up.
“The reality is we have to give proper notices to people and make proper attempts to reconnect people with their property,” he said.
“Basically, any person, homeless citizens included, have rights to have their property and to not have government interference with their property rights,” he said. So going in and clearing out a camp without follow certain steps “can constitute an unconstitutional taking of their property.”
When they do move in, it usually requires several city departments, including code enforcement, Vancouver police, and sometimes the parks department and public works.
Vancouver Police Lt. Greg Raquer said officers do weekly or biweekly sweeps in problematic, high-visibility, high-traffic areas such as downtown Vancouver and the waterfront. But officers work those shifts as overtime on a voluntary basis and so filling them can be a challenge. Sometimes the patrols have to be canceled. Thus the department is judicious about where it sends patrols.
“We do emphasis in areas we can get to easily and where people see them,” Raquer said. “The parks, we’re aware of but we don’t get to those areas as much.”
Young said the city is trying to address the issue, by working with local agencies to make more resources available to help people out of homelessness and trying to improve affordable housing stock, but those things take time.
Meanwhile the city has to balance the sometimes conflicting desires and rights of its residents.
“I think the ongoing hope is our citizens will continue to be engaged, keep their eyes and ears open and keep an eye on neighborhood properties,” Young said. “And be patient … because homelessness is such a complicated situation in the community.”