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Sept. 22, 2023

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Number of citations for unlawful camping, storing of property rise

Three years after approval of Vancouver’s camping ordinance, homelessness remains complicated issue, with solutions proving to still be elusive

By , Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
6 Photos
William Burke collects his belongings in black trash bags Nov. 21 while moving off his camping spot near Share House in downtown Vancouver.
William Burke collects his belongings in black trash bags Nov. 21 while moving off his camping spot near Share House in downtown Vancouver. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

When Vancouver’s camping ordinances were approved more than three years ago, City Manager Eric Holmes emphasized it was an interim measure while the city continued to look for solutions.

Councilor Bart Hansen said at the Sept. 14, 2015, city council meeting he didn’t want to see “an unnecessary amount of resources going into people who have a tent up,” according to Columbian archives.

But three years later, homelessness remains an ongoing and complicated issue.

The ordinances that outlaw camping between 6:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. have not changed. Every year, the number of camping-related citations has risen. As of mid-October, police had issued 209 citations this year for either unlawful camping or unlawful storage of personal property. That’s more than 20 citations per month.

Before the ordinances, when there was a total ban on camping, police issued nine citations a month for illegal camping issues, usually related to nuisance behaviors such as urination or defecation in the doorways of businesses, and strewn trash, according to Columbian archives.

Complaints from residents can prompt citations. Vancouver Police Department Lt. Greg Raquer, who oversees the neighborhoods surrounding downtown, said there a handful of residents who, “rightfully so,” complain repeatedly about homeless people camping or storing stuff outside of lawful hours.

“They get very frustrated when they see people with a lot of stuff,” he said.

The police department recently deployed its bicycle officer unit, a four-person unit focusing on quality of life issues in the downtown area, which includes patrolling homeless encampments. That could be another reason citations are up, as bicycle officers are sometimes the ones writing the citations. Raquer said police and dispatchers keep track of whom they’ve already talked to about illegally camping and storing property. He said police are sympathetic to an extent.

“We (have) given warnings for such a long time that they’re surprised when they get a citation,” he said.

Because campers are already breaking the law, it gives police reason to detain and identify them, said Officer Chris Simmons during a recent cleanup in the streets near Share House, the men’s homeless shelter downtown. Some people may be arrested for an outstanding warrant or for giving false information to police.

“A lot of them, they know the drill,” Simmons said. “It’s not about citations, it’s about compliance with the laws the city has passed.”

Raquer said the cleanups, which happen on a semi-regular basis to sanitize the area and throw away debris, are staffed by a handful of police earning overtime. Employees from other city departments are there are as well. The city recently began working with Rapid Response Bio Clean, a contractor with experience in handling hazardous items that also deals with homeless encampments in Portland.

Raquer said he spends about 20 percent of his work week addressing the camping ordinances.

Record citations

Kevin Larue, 57, has gotten the most camping-related citations of anybody — 21 from when the ordinance began Nov. 3, 2015, through Nov. 6, 2018. In an interview, he said he’s known as “the bike guy,” and at one time, had 372 bicycles that he was building and fixing.

He understands he’s breaking the law and that everyone should conform, he said, but he also doesn’t like the way he’s approached about his campsite and accumulated property.

“I’m not an animal. I’m a human being, but we’re treated like we’re animals,” he said.

On Nov. 5, police were checking the blocks near Share House when they saw garbage, ropes strung from the fence across the sidewalk, bicycle parts and shopping carts, according to the officer’s report filed in Clark County District Court.

Police told Larue he had until the end of the day to remove his property and camping facility or it would be removed and stored by the city. When police returned the next day, the stuff was still there.

“Kevin said he was, again, trying to remove the facility but needed more time. I advised Kevin the facility represented a public nuisance, was unlawfully camping and unlawfully storing personal property. I detained Kevin and authorized a work crew to remove the camping facility from the public maintained area. I provided Kevin with a Safekeeping Property Form so he could retrieve his property at a later date,” the report said.

Larue is supposed to appear in court Dec. 10 for eight different cases related to unlawful camping and unlawful storage of property.

To help cut down on the accumulation of property on the streets, the city will store people’s belongings.

People who are newly homeless or new to the area often are wary of handing over their stuff. Other people, Raquer said, are becoming more familiar with the process and will send things to storage. Some people may be arrested and have their belongings stored while they’re in jail, such was the case for Larue.

Missing court

Many people who are cited for unlawful camping and storage do not make their scheduled court appearances and end up with arrest warrants.

Ross Meyers, an attorney with Vancouver Defenders, said clients will miss court dates because they stay with their belongings. The law firm holds the primary misdemeanor contract for both Vancouver and Clark County, and represents most low-income people charged with misdemeanors.

People often rack up multiple citations and warrants, Meyers said, so Vancouver Defenders sees a lot of the same faces. One man, Larry Forbing, accumulated six tickets over a three-year span before he died June 17 at age 68.

Heather Blakeman, 40, has gotten two citations for unlawful camping. The officer’s report in her Oct. 5 citation said she was warned the day prior and knew she wasn’t supposed to be camping during the day.

“We’re not allowed to be tired one day and take a nap?” she said in an interview, adding that homeless people need places to be sick and change their clothes. “Where are we supposed to go?”

After she was cited, Blakeman failed to appear for a scheduled court hearing and a warrant was issued for her arrest.

Kyla Houchens, 51, was cited that same day. According to the officer’s report, she had also received a warning the day prior, and her tent was currently blocking the sidewalk. Houchens told the officer she was just at court and unable to take down the tent right away when she returned.

Earlier this month, Houchens told The Columbian she had trouble finding information about her case; it appears her first name was misspelled in the citation. She also failed to appear for a court hearing, and a warrant was issued for her arrest.

She was on the Hoquiam City Council in the mid-2000s, but for the last eight years, she’s been homeless off and on.

“There’s nothing between me and this messed up situation except this tent,” Houchens said. “I’m not trying to do anything but stay warm until I can make something happen with housing.”

She said she’s sometimes confused about whether she has to pack up her stuff and leave or whether just collapsing her tent is OK. She said her boyfriend works nights, so if he sleeps in his tent during the day, then he’s in violation of the camping ordinance.

“There’s got to be some kind of compromise,” she said.

Impossible position

Meyers, the attorney, typically juggles at least a couple of camping-related cases at a time. It’s challenging fighting cases, and he hasn’t won any yet.

Those who are convicted typically have their fines waived or reduced and get sentenced to one to seven days in jail, Meyers said.

He said judges haven’t allowed him to enter a necessity defense, arguing it was a necessity to break the law and that committing a crime was the most reasonable option given the situation. Basically, the defense contends the laws put homeless people in an impossible position.

“If somebody’s convicted of unlawful camping, it’s not like they can learn their lesson and then go off and stop doing it. It’s the kind of thing where you’re punishing them for their status, essentially, and they don’t have a real ability to change that,” he said. “I guess I don’t understand the purpose of making this a crime.”

He argues that the issues the ordinances are supposed to address are already addressed by other laws, such as those on urinating in public and littering.

Meyers said he’s never seen someone who’s not homeless get charged with a camping- or public storage-related offense. Someone who’s locked their bike to a rack is storing their personal property in public, but they won’t be cited. And, he argued, someone who lays out a blanket in a park and takes a nap won’t get in trouble unless they’re homeless.

“It seems like a real waste of resources that could maybe be spent helping them out,” Meyers said.

Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith