Four people living at an east Vancouver homeless encampment gathered around a table outside their tent — the encampment’s unofficial community kitchen, resident Rae Mackmer reported — during a cleanup event Thursday morning.
Officer Tyler Chavers of the Vancouver Police Department approached the group and immediately became the butt of the joke.
“We got the coffee. I was going to be a smartass and ask you, did you bring the donuts?” Mackmer teased.
The rib was friendly. Mackmer doesn’t really have a problem with Chavers, or the other people who have been by the encampment for trash pickup lately, she said.
“I can tell him, do not touch my table, because this is where everybody comes to get coffee and food,” fellow resident David Neff said.
There weren’t any other members of law enforcement on the scene Thursday morning. Crews from Vancouver Public Works and Rapid Response Bio Clean staffed the solid waste cleanup at the homeless encampment stretching around a quarter-mile down Northeast 51st Circle off Northeast 112th Avenue.
Workers from Council for the Homeless, SeaMar Community Health Center and local religious organizations were on the scene to assist. Vancouver’s new Homeless Response Coordinator Jamie Spinelli supervised the whole operation.
“It’s just cleanup efforts. Nobody’s being made to leave, we’re not taking anybody’s belongings,” Spinelli said.
That’s new. Up until a year ago, when Vancouver swept a homeless camp, residents would be forced to move on with anything they could carry and leave the rest. The sweep team, which reported to City Manager Eric Holmes, was made up of representatives from police, public works, code compliance, parking and contractors, Holmes said.
“We had a different approach previously,” Holmes said. “Two years ago, it was more of a break-up-camps (strategy).”
Then COVID-19 hit, and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instructed everyone — housed or unhoused — to shelter in place.
Uprooting people from established encampments could worsen the spread of the virus among an already vulnerable population, according to the CDC. The pandemic also shuttered resources for unhoused people across the community, like the day shelter at the Navigation Center.
The extraordinary circumstances required Vancouver to rethink its strategy toward encampments. For Spinelli and Chavers, who together make up a two-person Homeless Assistance & Response Team (HART), it posed an opportunity to improve relationships with the city’s unhoused population.
To start, they scaled back the law enforcement presence.
“It took a little bit for us to make the transition and kind of figure out to work around folks. And instead of working around them, what we really realized is, work with them,” Chavers said.
The new system: Unhoused residents are informed about a cleanup a few days ahead of time. They move any unwanted waste into the road, where a front-end loader scoops up the garbage and deposits it in disposal bins hauled onto the encampment for the purpose.
Participation is voluntary unless there’s waste that poses a health or sanitary hazard. The goal, Spinelli said, is to clear out as much trash as possible while minimizing stress and trauma.
“It is still very hard when cleanups have historically looked like several law enforcement officers, a giant cleanup crew,” Spinelli said. “That’s a lot of people in one place observing you having to go through your belongings.”
Not including the most recent cleanup event, the city has hauled away around 32 tons of trash from five different encampments over the last two months, Vancouver Communications Director Cara Rene reported.
Some of the garbage doesn’t come from encampment residents, but from housed people who need to get rid of stuff and don’t want to pay the dump fee (Thursday’s haul, for instance, included office furniture and a decrepit treadmill).
The trust between HART and the city’s unhoused population is improving but still tenuous, Chavers said.
It’s also complicated because the current policy sprung from COVID-19, and Vancouver will eventually resume its full sweeps, he added.
“The biggest fear is that when we say we’re going to come take care here, what we really mean is we’re going to come out and today’s the day we’re going to make you leave. Because we have to tell them the truth: there will be a day. That day is coming, where they will have to pick up and leave here,” he said.
Among the approximately 25 people who live at 51st Circle, prevailing attitudes toward the cleanup event varied. Some expressed varying levels of appreciation, indifference, annoyance or stress.
At one point, a volunteer at the encampment opened the flap of the wrong tent to ask a resident a question. The occupant of the invaded tent took up the privacy complaint with Spinelli.
“That’s totally rude and disrespectful,” she said. “That’s just crossing a line.”
Spinelli, who took on her current role in February, said that the next step for HART includes adding a third member from Vancouver Public Works. She hopes to eventually include health care workers and social service providers, she added.
“My hope really is to build out the rest of the HART team to be much more kind of outreach-focused,” Spinelli said.