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Thursday, February 29, 2024
Feb. 29, 2024

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Clark County struggles to address homeless encampments

By , Columbian political reporter, and
, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
5 Photos
Christy Jordan, 56, looks out from her tent in a wooded area in Hazel Dell. She says that all the heaps of garbage nearby were left by campers who have since left and that she keeps her trash in a bag nearby. During her three years of being homeless, she’s camped out in parks in Vancouver. She says she was once given a 72-hour notice to leave by police and cleared out. “I listen to the cops; I’m a good girl,” she said.
Christy Jordan, 56, looks out from her tent in a wooded area in Hazel Dell. She says that all the heaps of garbage nearby were left by campers who have since left and that she keeps her trash in a bag nearby. During her three years of being homeless, she’s camped out in parks in Vancouver. She says she was once given a 72-hour notice to leave by police and cleared out. “I listen to the cops; I’m a good girl,” she said. Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Over the last year, runner David Crawford said, he’s seen an uptick in homeless encampments along the Padden Parkway bike path. He recalled seeing tents and shopping carts full of old shoes and other items along with garbage.

In February, Crawford said he saw a particularly bad encampment with garbage strung about. He said that after it sat there for a long time, he decided to contact the Clark County Council.

It took a month for the encampment to be cleaned. The delay occurred, in part, because of confusion over whether the encampment fell under Vancouver or Clark County’s jurisdiction. But Crawford said that it seemed like the county didn’t have a chain of command or policy in place when it came to homeless encampments.

“From the guys I talked to, it’s like, who is supposed to take care of this?” he said. “Somebody needs to do something.”

The increase in homelessness in recent years has created new challenges. In 2016, Clark County lost a lawsuit over its handling of the personal property of homeless people during sweeps of encampments.

The city of Vancouver adopted a policy on cleaning up homeless encampments in 2015 and has been fine-tuning it ever since, but the county has still not developed a comprehensive policy on how to address encampments.

Records obtained through a public records request show that the county has wrestled with the legally dicey topic that one former manager called a “hot potato.”

Kevin Tyler, who recently took over the project as Public Works lands manager, said the county policy will seek to balance the rights of homeless people with the safety of workers and the public. He said it’ll address questions over what county workers should do if people are still at encampments or if they find drugs or stolen property. He said he’s getting input from county stakeholders before presenting it to the county manager and council.

Without a policy in place, Tyler said the county’s approach has been to respond to complaints of homeless encampments. He didn’t have exact numbers on how many cleanups the county does annually, but said it’s “just a handful.”

“We handle this in a reactive way, so it shows up in our parks and our maintenance,” he said.

Clark County Council Chair Eileen Quiring said in a text that she wants to work on a policy and believes the rest of the council does, as well.

Even so, the policy isn’t finished, and there’s no time frame for when it will be approved by the county council. Homeless advocates have already expressed concern about how the proposal is currently drafted, and records released by the county show that there is still work to be done.

Policies and problems

In recent years, homelessness and housing have become increasingly pressing issues for local government. The most recent Point in Time Count, an annual survey of people experiencing homelessness, found that the number of homeless people rose 21 percent since last year.

While there have been upticks in homelessness in Vancouver, people have also sought shelter in parts of unincorporated Clark County. In 2016, a federal judge found that the county’s inmate work crew violated the constitutional rights of homeless individuals by disposing of their tents, stoves, medication, documents and photographs during sweeps from 2012 to 2014.

Moloy Good, one of the attorneys who brought the lawsuit against Clark County, said in an email that the settlement required the county to change its policy on how it dealt with the property of homeless people.

Three years later, there is still no countywide policy on cleaning up homeless encampments. Instead, county maintenance crews have been following a Clark County District Court policy for how inmate work crews clean up homeless encampments on public property.

Under the three-page policy, work crew chiefs must determine if there is any personal property at the site and post a 72-hour notice prior to the cleanup. When the cleanup begins, work crew chiefs will determine if there is any personal property on site, which the policy defines as bags, personal identification, clothing, electronics, stoves, bikes, tents, medication and other items. According to the policy, if individuals are present, they can claim ownership of their property.

The policy states that once 72 hours have passed since the initial posting, work crew chiefs can treat any remaining property as abandoned, with the exceptions of purses, backpacks, electronic devices and property contained in containers marked with personal identification. These items can be left on-site or transported to Friends of the Carpenter or similar nonprofits, according to the policy.

A draft of the new countywide policy, obtained through a public records request, would apply to other county work crews and is intended to “prevent the use of public property for camping or storage of personal property” while respecting “personal property rights.”

“It’s kind of a balance,” said Tyler of the draft policy.

The new policy has the same 72-hour cleanup notice as the District Court policy. It also has provisions intended to protect workers, such as instructions to contact the Clark County Sheriff’s Office if people are still present for the cleanup and to wear gloves and masks if needed.

The new policy would require workers to post information on shelter resources and where any abandoned personal property can be identified and recovered. Owners of the property will have 60 days to identify and claim their property before it’s disposed of under the policy.

While staff has discretion to determine what’s garbage, the policy states that drugs (both illegal and prescription) should be given to the sheriff’s office for disposal. Weapons would either be destroyed or stored with the sheriff’s office.

Adam Kravitz, the executive director of homeless nonprofit Outsiders Inn, expressed alarm at how the policy requires the disposal of prescription drugs. He said it’s already difficult for homeless people to fill their prescriptions; a quick withdrawal from some medications could be dangerous.

“That could really put someone’s life at risk,” said Kravitz, a formerly homeless man who was a plaintiff in the 2016 lawsuit against the county.

Good and Peter Fels, the other attorney involved in the lawsuit against the county, said in an email that requiring prescriptions to be destroyed is a problem. They also said there is no rationale for why the policy should require lawfully owned weapons to be destroyed and should instead be treated as other types of property.

Kravitz said that homeless people may have a hard time recovering their property. He said that they may not have access to a telephone or transportation needed to set up and get to an appointment to claim their property.

Kate Budd, executive director of the Council for the Homeless, said in an email that her group would like to see the county adopt the city of Vancouver’s procedures to return property, which she described as “lower barrier and more reasonable for people with disabilities.”

Fels and Good also identify what could be a larger issue for the county. Earlier this year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court ruled that municipalities can’t penalize homeless people for sitting, sleeping or lying outside on public property when they can’t obtain shelter.

The city of Vancouver has had a policy on cleaning up homeless encampments in place since 2015, the same year an ordinance allowing camping between 9:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. went into effect. However, the county’s code currently does not allow overnight camping in parks and open spaces.

More work to do

Records obtained by The Columbian show that after Crawford emailed the county council with his concerns over the cleanup of homeless encampments, Councilor Gary Medvigy started looking into the issue.

The inquiry made its way from county Manager Shawn Henessee to Bill Bjerke, county parks manager. In March, Bjerke, who has since retired, responded that several departments came together in 2017 and 2018 “to discuss this very difficult and complex matter.”

“(The) responsibility for creating a countywide policy has been handed around like a hot potato with it taking a long pause at my desk,” wrote Bjerke.

He further wrote that the policy should be further expanded to include recreational vehicles, contracted services and other topics.

Republican Councilor Julie Olson, who represents a large urban area in unincorporated Clark County, told The Columbian that not having a policy creates confusion. She said the 2016 lawsuit over the disposal of homeless people’s property is separate from other issues that the policy should address, such as cleaning up parks and dealing with recreational vehicles parked in neighborhoods for long expanses of time.

She also said that the county needs to comply with the recent 9th U.S. Circuit Court while addressing other interests.

“It’s not about making homelessness a crime, it’s about trying to find a balance between getting resources to those who need them and protecting business and property owners,” she said.

Democrat Temple Lentz, who represents much of west Vancouver, said that because there is a shortage of shelter, the county needs to follow court rulings to ensure “we as a community don’t abridge the civil rights of those that are homeless.”

She said it’s likely taken the county years to develop a policy because it’s been in a transitional phase with turnover in its management and council. She said that the county policy should address concerns like county crews spraying parks for weeds when people are camped out. She also said that developing the policy shouldn’t be a “hot potato” because the county already is a large social service provider.

Columbian political reporter
Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith