The Vancouver City Council passed an ordinance Monday night allowing camping during the day for nighttime-working houseless people and to begin the process of selecting “supportive campsites” around the city that will offer sanitation and other services.
Under federal law, the city cannot prosecute people for sitting, lying or sleeping in public unless they have access to a temporary affordable shelter. And with 500 to 600 people living in tents or vehicles within the city of Vancouver and a lack of shelter options, having the campsites is an affordable and safer option for those people and the communities around them, according to city leaders.
The ordinance also established “Camping Impact Areas” to protect some environmentally sensitive areas. However, the one councilor who voted against the ordinance, Bart Hansen, said that it will end up harming too much of the city’s natural land that the councilors have the responsibility to protect.
The city is close to securing a nonprofit contractor to manage the campsites, and the company’s identity should be released later this week for the city council’s approval, said Jamie Spinelli, the city’s homeless resources coordinator.
Spinelli said she’s unsure how many supported campsites will open, but once the city selects the prospective spots, any resident or business owner within 1,200 feet of the selected site will be notified and be involved in a public comment period.
She said her hope is to open two or three supported campsites by the end of the year. As the program expands, Spinelli said, it’s unlikely it will provide for the needs of all the homeless people in Vancouver, but it’s a big help heading into winter.
Nighttime workers seeking permission to camp in city limits during the day must provide the city with satisfactory evidence of nighttime employment, according to the ordinance. Nighttime camping is still allowed in most publicly owned areas that aren’t city parks between 9:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.mthat aren’t city parks.
The “Camping Impact Areas,” which will prohibit camping in certain areas, aim to protect the 200 feet near waterways and sensitive areas, including the Columbia River, Vancouver Lake, Burton Channel, Peterson Channel, Fisher’s Creek and Burnt Bridge Creek.
Hansen said that it still leaves huge areas for the homeless to camp in spots that are still environmentally protected but are farther than 200 feet from waterways like Burnt Bridge Creek.
“When you take a look at where this is going to be enforced, and you go the distance of the creek, there is a huge buffer between that distance and any type of facility, road or anything of that nature,” Hansen said. “When you look at the campsites and what’s happening in there, there is a lot of environmental damage going on.”
Hansen said he is concerned about human waste contaminating the waterways — there aren’t restrooms nearby — and about the risk of a homeless encampment fire burning protected trees and possibly spreading to houses or nearby power lines.
Councilor Erik Paulsen, who voted in favor of the ordinance, said he wants the city to evaluate and protect the sensitive areas that Hansen mentioned and to work more closely with the Bonneville Power Administration to enforce camping in the private areas with power lines that attract the homeless.
“I think this is a positive step in the right direction, and I don’t want to slow the momentum, but I think we have more work to do here,” he said during Monday’s city council meeting.