Last fall, Irma Lucero noticed a recreational vehicle parked outside a house she owns in Vancouver’s Fruit Valley neighborhood. The vehicle sat on the street for about a month and a half. She never saw its owner, but it was clear to her that someone was living inside.
“It was an RV with graffiti on it. It looked like a hoarder’s nest. It just looked like something that is in Portland right now,” she said.
Lucero, a small landlord who rents the Fruit Valley house to tenants, didn’t know what to do. She called 311 to report it to nonemergency law enforcement, the fire department and AAA to see if the vehicle could be towed.
“Every day, it was making a call,” she said. “They say it’s not an emergency and you have to report it. Just very apathetic, like there’s no sense of urgency.”
The RV finally disappeared from the street Thursday evening, only to be replaced the next morning by a compact car with a smashed headlight. Once again, she didn’t know who owned the vehicle or how long it would be there. “It’s just very frustrating,” she said. “If they’re going to be parked there, what can the city do?”
• If you are living in your vehicle and are seeking help, call the Council for the Homeless Housing Hotline at 360-695-9677 to learn about shelter and housing assistance options in Clark County.
• If you have concerns about people living in vehicles in your neighborhood, contact the city’s HART staff by calling 360-487-8626, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or using the free MyVancouver mobile app.
Her confusion is shared by residents across the state, leading to recommendations by a state work group to clarify and protect the rights of people living in vehicles. The issue was heard last week by the Senate Housing Committee.
“This is not an isolated issue,” Lucero said. “This is something that we’re starting to see progressively increase here in Vancouver.”
The city’s response
The city’s Homeless Assistance and Resource Team is designed to respond to situations like Lucero’s. Residents can report concerns by calling HART at 360-487-8626, emailing email@example.com or using the free MyVancouver mobile app.
Once a situation is reported to HART, the team conducts outreach services. But when it comes to finding people a place to go, there’s not much the city can do.
Vancouver’s Safe Parking Zone, at the Evergreen Transit Center, provides residents living in vehicles with a free, legal place to park. Its 55 spots are filled, with another 50 vehicles on the waitlist.
“You’re not supposed to be living in an RV on the streets,” said Jamie Spinelli, Vancouver homelessness response coordinator and HART member. “But because we don’t have shelter available, we’re kind of tolerating it and trying to connect people to services.”
When doing outreach, HART staff signs up people for Safe Park and shelter waitlists while making sure they comply with certain parking laws. “They are required to move every so often. We don’t allow them to keep their belongings outside of their vehicle, so that’s something that the HART team will kind of consistently monitor,” Spinelli said.
The city does clear vehicle encampments if they create safety or traffic issues. Some vehicles parked on Northeast Campus Drive by Fort Vancouver High School are near work being done by the city’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department. HART intends to clear the vehicles soon, so they’re not in the way, according to Spinelli.
“Technically, it would just be a temporary moving,” she said. “Once the work is done, they can move back.” She added that the moving process is “never a surprise” to those living in their vehicles.
Second Safe Park plan
To better address this issue, the city included funding for a second Safe Park in its homelessness budget and is now seeking a location. The cost will depend on whether the city needs to lease, buy or renovate whatever property it finds. The city does not yet have a timeline for the second Safe Park, but aims for it to open this year.
To find a site, the city will first assess whether it has anything in its property inventory that can be used, according to Spinelli. If not, it will check with other public entities and property owners for a possible partnership, similar to the current Safe Park that is set up through an agreement with C-Tran.
Vancouver has so far found success with its first Safe Park. It has portable restrooms, handwashing stations, trash services, 24/7 on-site staff and security officers at night. Residents follow a code of conduct that restricts visitors in the parking area and includes nightly quiet hours.
“The difference between being on the side of the road and then having a place where you know that you’re a little bit safer really does kind of help,” said James, a Safe Park resident who asked to go by his first name for privacy reasons. “In the current environment with so many homeless people and stuff like that, finding places where people can be stable is really beneficial.”
A certified welder, James frequently moves around for work. Living in his 2003 Ford Focus with his dog, Steve, has become part of his lifestyle. Even if he found an apartment he could afford, his lack of rental history makes it hard to successfully apply, he said.
Spinelli understands these types of barriers make living in a vehicle some people’s only option. “Most of these folks have an income, whether it’s through employment or whether they’re on SSI or disability of some kind, and this is the only kind of shelter that they can afford,” she said.
Renting a space at an RV park could be more affordable than an apartment, but not all vehicles are accepted, Spinelli noted. “RV parks often have rules, like your trailer or RV has to be less than 10 years old,” she said. “So even though we’ve got several RVs that are actually in excellent condition, they’re older than 10 years old, so they’re not eligible.”
As the city works to open the new Safe Park, Lucero continues worrying that the street in front of her house will become a common parking spot if no action is taken.
“If we need to have community forums or whatever, I’m open to that. Like, what can we do to help support the homeless community?” Lucero said. “The city needs to keep everybody informed. What can we do? And 311 is not an answer.”
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.