Monday, September 20, 2021
Sept. 20, 2021

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In Our View: Dedicated homeless encampments needed

The Columbian

A proposal for campsites supported by the city of Vancouver should be part of a comprehensive plan for addressing homelessness in the area. The issue is reaching a critical stage that requires a response; inaction is not an option, with increasing homelessness being unsightly, unsanitary and unsustainable for a thriving community.

The Vancouver City Council is considering the establishment of several formal, supported campsites for unhoused people. The idea is to create temporary, safe places designed to help mitigate the sanitation problems and crime that pop up at unmanaged sites. Organized camps managed by a contracted nonprofit also could help connect residents to health, employment and housing services.

“We really can’t afford to wait on these,” said Jamie Spinelli, Vancouver’s homeless resources coordinator. “These larger cities — that our community members are concerned we’re starting to look like — waited. They also rejected the idea of campsites like these for years and are now scrambling to open them because the problem has gotten out of control.”

Indeed. Problems are out of control in many cities, with Portland standing as an abject lesson. City officials there recently announced plans to increase the clearing of homeless encampments, and a budget proposal for the next fiscal year focuses on cleaning up the city. Critics say those steps should have been taken long ago.

Cities are limited in the actions they can take. In 2018, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it is “cruel and unusual punishment” to enforce laws preventing camping in public places when people have no place to go. If there is a lack of shelter beds, camping must be allowed, leaving local governments with limited options. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in the case, which originated out of Boise, Idaho.

The Vancouver proposal would call for several encampments hosting between 20 and 40 people each. Spinelli recommends that the campsites be fenced and located throughout the city, with no more than one per neighborhood and each within a half-mile of public transit. “Ideally we’d like to see them close to where (encampments) already exist, if possible,” she said. “We’re trying to avoid disruptions to neighborhoods and businesses.”

Preserving neighborhoods will be essential, particularly for garnering public support. Vancouver residents have demonstrated support for homeless services, most notably by approving an affordable housing levy. But it is understandable if residents are not receptive to a homeless encampment in their neighborhood, particularly in areas currently not directly touched by the issue.

Most important, officials should heed the words of City Councilor Erik Paulsen: “It’s really important that this be viewed as a bridge strategy and not as a panacea.” Managed encampments will not diminish the need for housing or the need for continued services. But they hopefully can help mitigate concerns about sanitation and lend some structure to a chaotic situation. They also would require little capital investment; if they are unsuccessful, another approach can be used.

City officials are turning a former hotel into a shelter, and Spinelli recommends the construction of a 150-bed shelter. Vancouver also has worked to enhance services for unhoused people and improve cleanup of encampments.

Many efforts are needed to improve livability throughout the city. Dedicated encampments should be one of them.