The city of Vancouver will repave Fort Vancouver Way across from Clark College and eliminate parking along the thoroughfare, forcing a community of people living in their RVs on the street to move elsewhere.
The roadway was due for repaving, said Ryan Lopossa, the city of Vancouver’s streets and transportation manager. The city wanted to use the repaving project to improve safety for bicyclists. Wider bike lanes and buffers separating bicyclists from traffic will replace the road’s parking spots. The work is expected to be complete by fall.
In an emailed statement, Clark College’s vice president of operations, Sabra Sand, said the school anticipates that the road improvements will increase safety and accessibility for those who use Fort Vancouver Way.
A parking study by the city found that the parking spots were underutilized because hybrid learning has caused fewer students to attend class in person.
However, a growing number of RVs have been utilizing spots for the last several months.
Google Maps shows the street was empty of RVs in June 2019. But this May, it showed seven RVs on the stretch of street. Around five more had arrived by August.
Jamie Spinelli, the city’s homelessness response coordinator, said the Homeless Assistance and Resources Team had been working with residents of the RVs for months before officers gave out official notices to move.
Since the city of Vancouver informed her of the repavement plans in July, Spinelli had been reserving new openings at the city’s Safe Parking Zone for people relocating from Fort Vancouver Way.
The city’s Homeless Assistance and Resources Team offered to help tow people to another location if their RV wasn’t operable. The city could also store people’s belongings for 60 days if they had too many things to move.
Available spots at the Safe Parking Zone, where people living in their vehicles and without other shelter options can stay, are rare because the city doesn’t limit the amount of time people can stay.
Owners of a few of the dozen vehicles accepted spots. Those who did not move to the Safe Parking Zone are expected to scatter to different locations, parking there until they are told to move again.
“We have really done everything we could to find these folks alternative spaces, and some people took us up on those offers; some did not,” Spinelli said. “But there was ample opportunity for 100 percent of the people on that street to get help moving somewhere else.”
There are various reasons why someone might not move to the Safe Park, Spinelli said. Some may want to stay in the same neighborhood. The Safe Park is more than 8 miles from Clark College.
The Clark College adjacent location is near the Veterans Administration office and about a 30-minute walk to downtown, where many community services are.
“People tend to choose the area of town that they stay and camp in because that’s the area they consider home, and that’s what’s comfortable for them,” Spinelli said. “And for people whose vehicle is inoperable, moving clear across town with a vehicle that doesn’t operate can feel very disorienting, disconnecting.”
For some, moving to Safe Park isn’t an option.
For about a month, Maria Negron had lived in her small RV on Fort Vancouver Way. On Aug. 1, an officer handed her a notice that said she had to leave in two weeks or her vehicle could be impounded and she could be arrested for violating the law.
Negron, who is deaf, has experienced homelessness for about a year, living in her RV. This is the third time she has been asked to move. She said she would consider going to the Safe Park, but she was kicked out last time and cannot return for a while.
Tina Pederson, 53, had lived in her RV with her pregnant daughter on Fort Vancouver Way for about a month before their vehicle was towed, in a separate incident several weeks before the day all the vehicles had to be removed.
Pederson, who has had throat cancer for two years, became homeless in October after her husband died of pancreatic cancer. Her daughter, who lived with her, also fell into homelessness.
“When I lived in Hazel Dell, (we were) told to move every other day,” Pederson said. “This is the first place where they didn’t mess with us — and then they did.”
The average monthly rent for RV parks in Vancouver is $817, leaving limited options for people who cannot work. Safe Park is the only place in the city where people can legally live in their vehicles without paying rent. It’s also frequently full and has a waitlist.
The city plans to create a second Safe Park and is seeking a location. There is not yet a timeline for when it will open.
Spinelli said the city moves camps only when it’s necessary, including instances where camps are unsafe or there’s roadwork.
“We are, as much as possible, trying to keep people in place. … We’re really trying to balance the needs of everyone,” Spinelli said.
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.