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Aug. 19, 2022

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Press Talk: Could Sprung be an answer?

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No tents were here on Wednesday, but these were back on Friday.
No tents were here on Wednesday, but these were back on Friday. (Lou Brancaccio for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

And the answer is …

Well, there is no answer, silly. And if you think there is, I’ve got some oceanfront property in Yacolt I’d love to sell you.

Of course we’re talking about the homeless.

“This is one of — if not the most — vexing challenges cities all over, particularly the West Coast, face,” Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes told me Thursday.

Sad. But true.

Still, that doesn’t mean communities should simply throw up their hands and say, “What’s the next issue we should tackle?” There are ways to help, and Holmes said Vancouver continues to seek answers.

One advocate for the homeless is City Councilor Alishia Topper. I asked her to lunch to speak about the homeless.

• • •

I should note that — back in the day — there were some places that had an uncomfortable way of dealing with the homeless. When I first began as a reporter in a small Florida town back in the ’70s, the police chief told me how his department dealt with the issue.

“When my officers run into a homeless guy, we put him in the back of the squad car, drive to the county line, let him out and say ‘Fort Myers is that way.’ ”

Fortunately, plenty has changed in 40 years. But that small-town example points to an important axiom: Homelessness is everyone’s issue. If everyone isn’t offering to help, those who are offering help will face an unbalanced burden.

In southwest Florida, that burden fell to the bigger city of Fort Myers.

In our area, it falls on Vancouver. More specifically, that unbalanced burden — at least the most visible aspect — falls in the area around Share House. It’s located at 1115 W. 13th St.

Share provides lots of services, including hot meals and other programs to help homeless folks try to get back on their feet. But there are far too few beds at Share, so an unofficial tent city has popped up on nearby public sidewalks.

The city allows tents to go up for most of the day. Please note, I said “most” of the day. Technically, come morning, the tents should be pulled up and gone. But that doesn’t happen. The city simply looks the other way.

Still, every so often, law enforcement forces everyone out. There are reasons for this, including public sanitation.

I was down there Wednesday when a cleanup happened. The area actually looked pretty good when the city crew was finished. By early Wednesday afternoon, there were only a couple of people there, and two police officers were conversing with them. All was very calm. All was very professional.

But when I returned on Friday, those once bare sidewalks were filled with tents again. Wednesday’s occupants had simply retrieved their belongings and rebuilt their camps.

• • •

Allowing this circular pattern seemed odd, so I asked Topper about it and about homelessness in general. She’s one of the few elected officials who knows how it feels. For a short time while growing up, she was homeless.

Did she have an answer?

“That’s the question of the century. I think there’s an answer to help mitigate and decrease the number of homeless. I think we will always have individuals who are seeking shelter.”

But as elected types ponder answers, tension mounts. This is particularly evident as homeless people congregate in certain areas, like the area around Share House.

“The controversy stems from the ordinance we amended to allow camping on city (sidewalks) as long as you’re not impeding foot traffic, from I think 9 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. People were already congregating there. But the controversy now is that people are permanently finding a place in that location.”

Topper notes that law enforcement really doesn’t have the capability to force people to pack up and move every day. So the homeless stay until the city moves in to move them out. The city cleans the area. The homeless people then come back … until the city decides to move them out again.

Roust. Rinse. Return. Repeat.

Roust. Rinse. Return. Repeat.

Isn’t there a better way?

Behind the scenes, an idea has emerged that has to do with something called a Sprung structure. It’s a large tented shelter. Essentially it’s temporary housing for the homeless. They often have showers, restrooms and health services.

A shelter like this could — could — eliminate most of the individual tents. San Diego has a few of them, and they are getting positive reviews.

The shelters there also have job counseling services, case managers and folks who help the homeless find permanent homes, according to a story in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Does something like this appeal to Topper?

“I’m open to almost any solution that will help get people from the streets into permanent housing. The one thing I would lay out as a potential concern is the ratio of case managers to the individuals who are sleeping there.”

The point Topper is making here is to provide comprehensive help to homeless people; don’t just give them a place to sleep. Homeless people have a variety of issues; lump everyone under one big tent and you might not get to individuals’ core problems. Finally, some homeless people won’t want to go there.

“But, yeah, as an option, absolutely.”

I asked Topper if there has been any discussion about something like a Sprung structure at the city council. She said that has not yet happened, although she has had some discussion of it with Holmes, the city manager.

Topper said she would be an advocate for having that discussion, but the biggest issue is, “Where are you going to put it?”

• • •

I ended our conversation by asking Topper how she weighs the rights of the homeless against the rights of a community or neighborhood.

“That’s something we grapple with every day. Livability, right? What do people expect when they move into a neighborhood? Someone sleeping in their car parked outside somebody’s house isn’t that dream. What services are you going to provide for people who have permanent real property versus people who are in a transient situation? It’s really hard. I don’t have an exact answer but ‘Not in my backyard’ isn’t going to fly anymore. This is a problem for all of us.”

Fair enough. But I asked if she thought this tent city by Share House would be allowed to stand if it went up where she lived, or where the mayor lived?

“I think my neighbors would be very upset.”

• • •

Well, I think we all need to get involved. And maybe one of the incentives to find a permanent solution would be …

“Fix it or … coming to your neighborhood soon …”

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