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Dec. 3, 2022

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Vancouver weighs launching ‘supported campsite’ program for the homeless

Small, city-endorsed sites would aim to increase security and services for unhoused

By , Columbian staff writer
7 Photos
Springtime flowers brighten the day of residents at a homeless encampment In northeast Vancouver on Tuesday morning, May 25, 2021.
Springtime flowers brighten the day of residents at a homeless encampment In northeast Vancouver on Tuesday morning, May 25, 2021. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Vancouver city councilors voiced their approval for a plan that would create several formal, supported campsites around the city for people experiencing homelessness.

The idea is to create temporary and safe spaces for unhoused people where they can find some stability, Jamie Spinelli, Vancouver’s homeless resources coordinator, told the city councilors during their meeting Monday afternoon. 

In addition to helping residents access health, employment and housing services, the supported campsites would also help mitigate some of the community impacts of homelessness such as trash, sanitation and crime, she said.

“We really can’t afford to wait on these. These larger cities — that our community members are concerned we’re starting to look like — waited,” Spinelli said. “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.”

The sites would host between 20 and 40 people each, Spinelli continued, though size could vary depending on the location. Her proposal to the council recommends that the campsites be fenced, located throughout the city and managed by a contracted nonprofit. 

Spinelli said that she’s still developing the exact criteria that would be used to select the sites, but she plans to take several factors into consideration. She’d plan to see the camps spaced evenly throughout Vancouver — no more than one per neighborhood, and no two too close together — and within a half-mile of public transit access. 

The city could look to publicly owned property, churches or private property with owners interested in participating.

“Ideally we’d like to see them close to where (encampments) already exist, if possible,” Spinelli said. “We’re trying to avoid disruptions to neighborhoods and businesses.”

She added: “I realize that much of that sounds pretty vague, and that’s because I want to really stress we are committed to a robust community outreach effort before opening these. We want to do this in partnership with the community as much as possible.”

Councilors didn’t take any direct action on the proposal Monday, though they did indicate broad support for moving forward. 

The next steps will involve drafting a public outreach campaign and creating a more concrete process for selecting supported campsite locations. Staffers also plan to launch an FAQ page on the project at later this week.

“It’s really important that this be viewed as a bridge strategy and not as a panacea,” Councilor Erik Paulsen said. 

“Who we contract with and the provisions of the contract … is of tantamount importance. We learned that with the Navigation Center,” Paulsen added, referencing the controversial city-owned day shelter that closed after less than two years.

“This is potentially a public health crisis, so I do support the proposal here. I am concerned about safety at these sites,” Councilor Laurie Lebowsky said. “I would like to see a draft public involvement plan presented to council before it’s rolled out.” 

Spinelli’s recommended timeline would see at least one pilot campsite debuted by September and three up and running no later than December.

Other elements of response

The supported campsites were one piece of a broader homelessness response plan Spinelli presented to the council on Monday.

“These supported campsites are meant to be temporary,” Spinelli said. “This plan is meant to address the immediate health and safety crisis as we continue to work on more long-term, sustainable solutions.” 

One transition is already complete. When the Navigation Center closed more than a year ago, unhoused people could visit the building to pick up their mail just two days per week; now, through a program from Outsiders Inn, mail pickup is available five days per week at Living Hope Church in central Vancouver and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church downtown.

Clark County and the Vancouver Housing Authority are already working to transform the former Howard Johnson hotel near Vancouver Mall into a 63-room noncongregate shelter, scheduled to open next month.

However, Vancouver should also look to construct a 150-bed bridge shelter within the next four years, Spinelli said. 

“Our housing and homeless response system is already at capacity. What we have is a lot of people living outside, waiting on a very long list,” she told the city council.

The plan before councilors also included more resources for the “Talkin’ Trash” team, a local program operated by nonprofit Share that hires currently or recently homeless people to help with site cleanup. Spinelli is aiming for an additional truck and two new crew members, bringing their team on the ground up to eight. 

She also pointed to the city’s Safe Parking Zone — a pandemic-era strategy that allows people living in their vehicles to shelter-in-place with access to bathrooms and sanitation — as an opportunity to expand. Currently, Vancouver’s Safe Parking Zone is at the Evergreen Transit Center. Spinelli recommends that the city create more parking sites.

“To do nothing would mean that we will continue to see what we’ve been seeing,” Spinelli said. “What we’re creating here is a tighter safety net with smaller gaps.”

Columbian staff writer