Friday, June 18, 2021
June 18, 2021

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County moves toward policy clarifying, tightening response on homeless camps

By , Columbian political reporter

The Clark County Council is moving forward with creating a policy intended to clarify how the county responds to homeless encampments on public property.

In recent years, Clark County staff have been drafting a policy for how the county handles cleanups of homeless encampments on public land. It’s intended to cover how crews should handle personal property and hazardous materials while complying with recent court decisions.

At the end of a work session Wednesday morning, the council directed staff to move forward with a policy that would ban daytime camping and prevent business entrances from being blocked by tents and people sleeping. The policy would expand the public rights of way where camping would be prohibited.

Councilor Julie Olson also asked that it include language on RVs being used as a permanent shelter on public streets, a problem that’s sprung up in her district.

During the work session, the council’s discussion of the homeless encampment clean-up policy also veered into the county’s broader response to the problem. At one point, Councilor Gary Medvigy addressed what he called the “elephant in the room.”

“Where do they go?” Medvigy said of homeless individuals. “And do we want to set up an encampment somewhere? Where they have porta-potties and showers? Most people say, ‘No, we don’t.’ ”

Council Chair Eileen Quiring agreed with Medvigy and said she wanted to see a compassionate policy. She also said, “I would like to see that (the policy) does not enable more camping by offering services in some ways.”

‘Camping is going to happen’

A challenge for the county will be crafting a policy that manages camping on public property while complying with recent court decisions intended to protect the rights of homeless individuals.

Clark County was the subject of one of these court decisions. In 2016 a federal judge found the county violated the constitutional rights of homeless individuals after work crews seized and threw out their property during an encampment sweep.

Homelessness has continued to rise since then, and county maintenance crews have relied on Clark County District Court policy used by inmate workers. The policy requires work crew chiefs to determine if any personal property is present at an encampment and post a 72-hour notice before a cleanup. The policy requires work crews to leave any unclaimed property or store it so it can be recovered by its owners later.

During the work session, Kevin Tyler, county lands manager, explained that except for a few sites where permits are required, camping is prohibited on land owned by Clark County. He noted that despite the prohibition, the number of homeless encampments in Clark County has increased.

“(Camping) is going to happen, right?” he said. After the meeting, Tyler said that he didn’t have exact numbers on homeless encampments, but he said they pop up every couple of months and vary in size.

Tyler told the council that the county has some leeway in regulating where and when camping occurs. He said that the new policy could prohibit campers from obstructing the public right of way, such as a sidewalk. However, he said that the county should pay particular attention to a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision from last year determined that local jurisdictions can’t use camping ordinances to effectively criminalize homelessness.

The ruling, Martin v. Boise, ruled that cities can’t prosecute homeless people for sleeping on the streets or other public places if shelters are full and they have nowhere to go.

In response to a question from county Councilor Temple Lentz about how the prohibition is currently enforced, Tyler said that people camping on county land are given notice that they can’t be there and that they have 72 hours before the area will be cleaned. But he said the county doesn’t issue citations and people typically leave encampments before cleanups begin.

“The sheriff’s office isn’t arresting people (for) not being gone after 72 hours,” he said.

Bill Richardson, county deputy prosecuting attorney, added that the current policy concerns how homeless people’s property is handled and is meant to give them due process before it’s taken by the county.

Clark County staff explained during the work session that the county’s camping policy can address situations where encampments create a sanitation or safety issue and can prevent people from setting up tents in dangerous areas. They can also regulate when camping occurs.

In recent years, other jurisdictions have enacted camping regulations. Since 2015, Vancouver has allowed camping on most public property between 9:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. The city has procedures for cleaning up encampments and will issue citations for people who violate its ordinance.

Kelso also adopted an ordinance that prohibits camping during the day to prevent large homeless encampments, like those that have sprung up in Portland and Seattle.

‘Need versus what is available’

During the work session, councilors said they wanted to see a comprehensive solution to the seemingly intractable problem. Olson said that it was also important to get people in homeless encampments connected to services. But Michael Torres, community housing and development manager, said that there isn’t an easy fix.

“Because the reality is in our community, people are not homeless because they want to be homeless,” he said. “The narrative of, well, I’m making choices, I want to be outside, I want to be homeless — by and large that is not the case.”

He said that the county has limited outreach capacity. He said that homeless people contacted by service providers may get assessments but are still waiting for housing or treatment. He said that in 2018, about 3,169 households experienced homelessness and about 2,900 households expressed the need for shelter. But the county has only about 170 shelter beds with just under 300 available in the winter.

“So the need versus what is available is incredibly disproportionate,” he said.

Olson also mentioned during the work session that at its Tuesday evening hearing the council passed an ordinance implementing House Bill 1406 intended to reduce homelessness. Passed in the last legislative session, the new law essentially allows local governments to keep a small portion of sales taxes generated in the unincorporated Clark County that would otherwise go to the state. The money generated could be used for affordable and supportive housing and is expected to bring in approximately $350,000 annually.

Columbian political reporter