In early April, large homeless encampments could be found throughout Vancouver. Roughly 40 campers clustered near the Share House in west Vancouver, and about 25 people lived at an encampment north of Southeast Mill Plain Boulevard, where Northeast Chkalov Drive turns into 112th Avenue.
Those were just two of many encampments throughout the city, most of which housed about 15 to 30 people, according to Jamie Spinelli, the city of Vancouver’s homeless response coordinator.
Today, many of those encampments are gone — at least for now.
In early April, the city’s Homeless Assistance Response Team began notifying people living in the encampments that they would be removed in late April and early May for cleaning and sanitation.
It was the first time in more than two years that camp residents had received such a notice.
In 2020 — per Gov. Jay Inslee’s orders, state law, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention policies aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 — the city began allowing homeless encampments to remain in place and grow. After COVID-19 cases declined in recent months, the city has reversed that policy.
Four weeks after providing notice of removal at camps throughout the city, the Homeless Assistance Response Team began removing camps, starting with one on Northeast Campus Drive north of Fort Vancouver High School. Most recently, on May 11, the team removed a camp on West 16th Street near Markle Avenue.
Health and sanitation concerns were the main reason for their removal, according to Homeless Assistance Response Team officer Tyler Chavers.
“The downside of allowing these camps to remain in place is that it allowed people to stay in the same place for so long that other health problems were happening due to the spread of bacteria and the spread of pests,” Chavers said.
However, Chavers noted that the city didn’t remove camps indiscriminately. Instead, camps were assessed individually, and the ones that were deemed as having sanitation concerns were marked for removal and cleaning.
“It’s never been about making people leave because they’re homeless,” Chavers said. “It’s always been for health and sanitation reasons based on that many people being in an environment that doesn’t support toileting, garbage, pest control or sickness.”
Some camps, like the one near Share House, had been left alone for nearly two years, and waste had become an issue; other camps were flagged for not being able to accommodate portable toilets and hand-washing stations, like the one on Northeast Chkalov and 112th Avenue, which was located on a lot surrounded by private property.
“They were already getting so bad that there was no question that we needed to break them up in order to sanitize them,” Chavers said. “To sanitize them, we moved people out (and) took the food source away from pests and vermin so that we could exterminate or eradicate that issue. At the same time, we put down a broad-spectrum antibacterial and took care of the environment.”
Homeless outreach organizations are notified before cleanup or removal of a camp, so they can help provide resources for people who must move.
“Council for the Homeless and partner agency outreach teams continuously engage with people living in the encampments,” said Council for the Homeless spokeswoman Charlene Welch. “Teams made housing assessments, shelter, mental and physical health services, behavioral health services, substance abuse services available to those who were willing to engage.
“It is very difficult for people to engage in these types of processes and services while unhoused,” she said. “The goal of surviving day to day supersedes thinking beyond the immediate need.”
The city offered to place residents’ items in a storage unit for pick-up later, and some residents were able to get connected with shelters in Clark County through Council for the Homeless and other organizations. However, there is not enough shelter space available to accommodate everyone living outside in Clark County, and many camps will likely return soon. Some already have near the Share House.
“I don’t want to set the expectation that if a camp is being cleared that it will never set up again in a particular location, because that likely won’t be the case, because we still don’t have enough shelter space for people,” Spinelli said. “But people can expect that the HART team will stay continually engaged with the camps that exist, or the camps that pop up in a new space.”
‘People don’t just disappear’
Spinelli said the city is scheduling cleanups “very regularly” and stressed that cleanups don’t necessarily mean a camp will be removed.
“Sometimes that just means we come through and pick up solid waste,” she said. “We’re doing the best we can to make sure the camps stay a little smaller and that they are safer.”
Moving forward, camps will not be allowed in the street or on sidewalks. They also won’t be allowed to grow large. But until more shelter options become available, camps will be present in Vancouver.
“People don’t just disappear,” Spinelli said. “When we make them leave a certain area, they move to the next block or the next available piece of land.”
Camp removals and cleanups can be traumatic for the people living there, especially for those with mental health challenges, but Chavers said they are necessary to ensure everyone’s safety. In 2021, roughly 30 people died while experiencing homelessness in Clark County, according to Council for the Homeless.
“Most of the folks that are unsheltered outside that we have relationships with, they were thrilled to see that it’s time to clean it up, because they know they can come back eventually,” Chavers said. “We’ll continue to educate folks about what the expectations are with regards to how much stuff can accumulate. It’ll just be an ongoing process, much like we’ve done in the past. But we just can’t afford to let it get so big and so out of control with regards to the amount of trash.”
New options expand
More shelter options are becoming available in Clark County, such as Safe Stay Communities, shelters in renovated hotels, tiny-home clusters and the Safe Parking Zone. On May 16, the Vancouver Housing Authority held a grand-opening ceremony for a three-story, 40-unit assisted-living facility that, when it opens soon, will provide critical housing and support for formerly homeless individuals with complex behavioral and physical health challenges, according to Roy Johnson, executive director for the Vancouver Housing Authority.
Eventually, Chavers said, he hopes that homelessness as it exists today will be eradicated from Clark County.
“The thrust of our work at HART is compassionate outreach, trying to figure out where somebody came from, how they ended up outside, why they continue to persist in being outside and what we can do to help them get back inside,” he said. “We will continue to build better systems and more space for folks. I imagine one day, we’ll look back and we’ll talk about homelessness, and we’ll always be concerned that it might come back, but for all intents and purposes, it will be under control or gone.”
Chavers encourages anyone with questions or concerns about homelessness in Clark County to visit the Be Heard Vancouver Homelessness Response page at www.beheardvancouver.org/homelessness-response.
If you are in need of shelter, call the Council for the Homeless housing hotline at 360-695-9677.