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March 28, 2020

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Clark County officials closer to solidifying policy on homeless camp items

Questions linger on plan to remove and store property found at reported sites

By , Columbian breaking news reporter
Published:
3 Photos
An abandoned campsite is seen Monday afternoon in the woods of north Hazel Dell. Clark County is considering policies to govern how such sites are cleaned up. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian)
An abandoned campsite is seen Monday afternoon in the woods of north Hazel Dell. Clark County is considering policies to govern how such sites are cleaned up. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

More than three years after a lawsuit forced them to reconsider the issue, Clark County officials are inching closer to an established policy over removing property from homeless camps.

Clark County Parks sent a policy draft to county councilors in late January, and they discussed it at a council time meeting last week. Several questions remain as discussion over the policy continues, including who will actually perform the clean-up work. But overall, the lawyers who sued the county say it’s a good start.

“They’re starting with a better policy to build on, so that’s good to see,” said Vancouver attorney Moloy Good, who helped bring the lawsuit against the county. “There’s nothing objectionable. It’s mostly just stuff that raises questions.”

Good and Peter Fels, a retired Vancouver attorney, represented six plaintiffs who accused the county of throwing out their belongings during cleanups from 2012 to 2014. The county in 2016 agreed to pay a settlement of $250,000 in damages and attorneys’s fees. Councilors who approved the settlement also committed to recommending a policy that would set stricter limits for when work crews can remove homeless people’s belongings.

“In general, I think this policy is consistent with that, and I’m glad to see that they’re doing it,” Fels said.

The policy, which is available online as part of the council time meeting agenda packet, is intended to “reduce the impact of houselessness on public lands in the most respectful, safe and proactive ways.” It calls for a designated staffer to attempt to inspect reported occupied or unoccupied unauthorized campsites — defined as places with sleeping items or any stove or fire pit kept on public property — within 24 hours of receiving complaints.

If a site is deemed immediately unsafe due to discarded drug paraphernalia, excess trash, human waste, reports of a crime or other risks, the staffer would contact the Clark County Sheriff’s Office. In all other cases, the county would contact the sheriff’s office to request a trespass posting, which would offer a minimum 72 hours before any cleanups, provided there was no illegal activity at the site.

If a site is occupied, the county would contact an outreach coordinator with homeless nonprofit Share. Should the cleanup be determined to be outside of the scope of the work crew, the outside vendor would perform the work, following policy procedures.

Personal items considered useful would be stored, photographed, inventoried and bagged for storage; items determined to be trash would be thrown out.

The county would keep the property for a minimum of 60 days before disposing of it. Notices, written in English and Spanish, would describe where the items are being stored and for how long. County staffers at the storage location, which was not specified in the draft, would ask claimers to “reasonably identify” the property, its location prior to removal and the approximate time it was removed.

In addition to the issue of which outside vendor would perform the work, Good and Fels raised some other questions.

The lawyers called for thorough training for anyone participating in the cleanups and clearer definitions of what constitutes trash versus private property.

“Are they then authorized to take all of the property and then throw it away? Are they entitled to some property and not others?” Fels said. “There has to be a due process.”

When law enforcement is involved, they wondered how legal rights during a criminal investigation overlap with the would-be policy. For instance, how would closed containers with possibly illegal items inside be handled, and what if people in a camp are committing crimes while situated near another camp that is following the law?

“When can they look inside closed containers, and what is the purpose of doing it here?” Fels said. “They’ll have to figure out a process to deal with those situations, but it raises some concerns.”

‘Don’t want to push people around’

The Council for the Homeless’s 2019 Point in Time count tracked 958 people experiencing homelessness throughout Clark County, a 21 percent increase from the previous year. About 200 of those people are believed to live in unincorporated areas.

The draft policy represents one piece as the county continues to formulate a larger strategy to combat homelessness, with additions like an anti-camping policy on hold. Councilors decided to discuss certain issues on a faster track — as opposed to adopting an overarching solution — to simplify a complex issue.

“It is a lot to look at, so trying to solve one piece at the time, is the best approach,” said County Councilor Gary Medvigy, who serves on the Council for the Homeless Board of Directors. “The issue is, we really don’t have an active policy. A lot of neighborhoods are really frustrated.”

County staff will continue to modify the draft before councilors review it again. Medvigy said that, regardless of what the final draft looks like, it needs to be consistent with what the city of Vancouver has been working toward since 2015 and part of a system that includes robust outreach and options for shelter.

“We need to enforce the law, but at the same time, we need to bring help,” Medvigy said. “We don’t want to push people around.”

Items required to go to storage under draft policy: tents, sleeping bags, blankets, boots, shoes, backpacks, purses, prescribed medication, personal identification, bike trailers, bikes, strollers, shopping carts not connected to a local store, electronic devices

Items to dispose: perishable foods and liquids, items with vermin or bugs, items stained with human or animal waste, gasoline or lighter fluid, empty gasoline or lighter fluid containers, propane tanks, charcoal, heating briquettes, wood chips or pellets, matches or lighters, fire extinguishers, instant electric or battery powered lighters or matches, toilets, chemicals, bleach, hazardous materials, alcohol, cardboard, building material

Turn over to law enforcement: weapons, ammunition, explosives, controlled substances, call Clark County Animal Control for pets

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