A committee of Vancouver residents and city staff is reviewing proposals from organizations looking to operate the city’s new supported campsites, marking a concrete step forward in Vancouver’s changing approach to alleviating homelessness.
Jamie Spinelli, the city’s homeless resources coordinator, confirmed that the group received multiple responses to its request for proposals by the deadline on Wednesday. She declined to offer any details on the organizations that applied, adding that the city doesn’t typically disclose information about potential operators during the evaluation phase.
The review committee includes representatives from city staff, the Vancouver Neighborhood Alliance and people with lived experiences of homelessness, Spinelli said.
“We really are trying to get as many different perspectives as possible,” she added during a recent city council workshop.
The operator search indicates that Vancouver is moving forward with its plan to create a handful of legal, sanctioned campsites for unhoused people.
Under the proposal, a handful of small (20-40 residents) campsites would be dispersed around the city, with on-site restrooms and showers, and a fence for increased security. Spinelli also suggests including some kind of on-site temporary building or trailer, to serve as a warming or cooling shelter during extreme weather and to act as an office for providers of housing, employment and health care services.
Spinelli first unveiled the supported campsite proposal in May. She’s spent the last few months soliciting comments and ideas from community members.
“The majority of feedback that we’ve received has been generally supportive of the plan,” Spinelli said. “Pretty much everyone expressed the need for showers, restroom and laundry services on-site as much as possible.”
“Probably the most common concern I hear regularly is the idea that, if you build it, they will come,” she added.
While the city staff would be responsible for identifying the location of the campsites, all daily operations would rest on the city’s selected operator. In the Aug. 2 workshop, councilors emphasized the gravity of making the right decision.
The conversation echoed similar discussions at City Hall in 2017, when the city sought a nonprofit operator to run its day shelter at the Navigation Center, and again in 2019 when that relationship ultimately fell apart. The center has since been permanently shuttered, thanks to a combination of pandemic and staffing woes.
“Success or failure of this program is going to be largely dependent on who we bring in as a nonprofit partner on this,” Councilor Ty Stober said.
Councilor Erik Paulsen suggested the city look to the south for potential models. Last year, he toured a comparable site in southeast Portland — a fenced, modestly sized campsite operated in partnership between the city of Portland, housing nonprofit JOIN, and a collaborative called Creating Conscious Communities with People Outside, or C3PO.
In a follow-up conversation with The Columbian recounting the visit, Paulsen lauded the self-governing nature of the Portland program. Residents formed a board, selected leaders and enforced their own codes of conduct. Paulsen said he’d be looking for an operator who could engender a similar culture.
“If we can create that community, I see benefits in that,” Paulsen said.
Councilor Bart Hansen also pointed to Portland, suggesting that their similar pilot programs — as well as a $250 million tax on high-income households, passed last year to fund addiction treatment, mental health services and rent assistance — could lead to spillover into Vancouver unless the city takes action.
“In my opinion, if you don’t build it, they will come,” Hansen said.
“There are a lot of communities around us — such as one to the south that has $250 million to put in a plan very similar to ours. There will be some folks that choose to go to their villages, or their camps or their safe parks, and then there will be folks that chose not to. Those that choose not to will go to other communities that have not put plans like this in place — mainly our community. So I’m very supportive of this.”
Under Spinelli’s proposal, Vancouver staff would identify potential campsite locations based on a set of criteria. The city council will need to amend its municipal code to permit 24/7 camping in those areas.
Currently, Vancouver’s municipal code allows for people to camp on most publicly owned property between 9:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., except in public parks.
The city adopted the policy in 2015, in response to a lawsuit working its way through the 9th Circuit Court. In that case — Martin v. Boise — the judge ultimately ruled that a municipality can’t ban overnight camping on public property while simultaneously offering unhoused people nowhere else to go.
“Until there is an ample supply of adequate shelter, the city cannot ban camping at all places all the time,” City Attorney Jonathan Young said.
The supported campsites would provide an alternative place to go, he continued, though they wouldn’t have a high enough capacity to accommodate the city’s entire unsheltered population.
But Young suggested that the city should move away from “a sledgehammer approach, and move to a more refined scalpel in carving out, particularly, what areas are we talking about?”
Young proposes amending the ordinance to ban camping at all hours within a thousand feet of any of the city-sanctioned sites, once they’re up and running, to help mitigate the impact on the surrounding neighborhood.
The city attorney also suggests banning camping full-time within 200 feet of major waterways including Columbia River, Vancouver Lake, Burton Channel, Burnt Bridge Creek, Petersen Channel and Fisher’s Creek. Young’s proposal would also make camping on wastewater, water and stormwater facilities illegal.
These changes, he emphasized, would last two to three years, as long as the pilot program is operating.
“Supported campsites, while maybe moving in the right direction, are really a temporary pilot to buy us some time,” Young said. “(They should be) modest, well-managed, and used as a means to connect occupants with services.”
The city council is on track to formally amend the Vancouver Municipal Code to accommodate the camping changes following a public hearing on Sept. 20.