Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes has declared a civil emergency in response to growing homelessness in the city; rising criminal activity and drug use in camps; and a general disinterest among the unhoused population in getting help.
The city has not declared a civil emergency since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The emergency orders allow the city manager to access additional funds and resources to manage the emergency and designate up to 48 acres of public property and rights-of-way closed to camping.
If ratified by the Vancouver City Council on Monday night, the declaration can only be terminated by another declaration in the future. If a termination is proposed, it must be backed by data, such as shelter availability and homelessness deaths.
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The emergency orders and a staff report by Vancouver Homelessness Response Coordinator Jamie Spinelli said criminal activity is rising within camps, with increased violence, and people who aren’t homeless are using camps to deal drugs.
Several factors have caused people experiencing homelessness to lose interest in connecting with resources, Spinelli said in the staff report.
“The impacts of the pandemic, passing of the Blake decision, and shift to much more widespread fentanyl usage seem to have created a perfect storm, which has effectively changed the landscape regarding unsheltered homelessness — what it looks like, what it responds to, and how it impacts the entire community,” Spinelli said in the staff report.
The declaration additionally cited homelessness’ impact on law enforcement and emergency response services.
More than 6,200 of the Vancouver Police Department’s calls since 2021 have been for five camps, according to a city presentation. Calls related to homelessness make up 10 percent of the department’s total calls.
“Homelessness has threatened and continues to threaten the lives of residents of the city of Vancouver, and the real property occupied by those experiencing unsheltered homelessness,” the civil emergency declaration said.
The Vancouver City Council was expected to decide whether to ratify, modify or terminate the emergency orders at its Monday meeting.
City staff will give the council suggested changes, including altering the city’s camping ordinance to reduce the impact of camping, building a 150-bed “bridge shelter,” updating the Vancouver police response to homelessness and establishing corridor-specific community response teams.
In the city presentation, updating and aligning law enforcement’s response to homelessness is proposed. This would include training at shift briefings, patrol assistance with enforcing camping expectations and extending Community Court referral options to patrol.
The idea is that increased citations with referrals to Community Court would lead to increased participation with services, as well as increased support and accountability.
According to the presentation, patrol training and new procedure implementation would start this month.
Targeted outreach response
The city’s presentation also proposed more specific targeted outreach and behavioral health response teams.
The teams, coined Corridor Community Response, would work alongside the Fourth Plain Corridor, downtown and Uptown. The teams would be crisis trained but intended for pre-crisis response. The teams would also host community events to “activate more problematic spaces.”
An expansive shelter called the “bridge shelter” is a recommendation.
In the shelter, people experiencing homelessness would have access to 150 shelter beds, hygiene facilities and community service providers.
The shelter would include services, such as medical respite beds, on-site substance use disorder services, a medication-assisted treatment clinic and peer support.
According to a one-year timeline included in the report, the construction of the bridge shelter would begin in early August and open in late December.
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