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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

New emergency homelessness orders will allow Vancouver to restrict more camping, move faster on solutions

Homeless response coordinator: “I cannot stress enough that fentanyl has completely changed the landscape and changed the game”

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter, and
Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: November 7, 2023, 11:17am
8 Photos
Jerry Murillo of Unlimited Fence lends a hand as construction continues at the third Safe Stay community in downtown Vancouver on Tuesday morning, Nov. 7, 2023. The city approved emergency declaration for homelessness on Monday night.
Jerry Murillo of Unlimited Fence lends a hand as construction continues at the third Safe Stay community in downtown Vancouver on Tuesday morning, Nov. 7, 2023. The city approved emergency declaration for homelessness on Monday night. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The Vancouver City Council ratified three emergency orders Monday regarding homelessness, allowing the city to access emergency reserve funds, forgo some processes for accessing resources and designate up to 48 acres of public property and rights-of-way closed to camping.

The goal of the emergency orders is for the city to more swiftly address the issue of homelessness, City Manager Eric Holmes said.

“The emergency declaration reflects a value that it is both unacceptable and lacking in compassion to allow those threats to the safety of chronically unhoused individuals, as well as the overall community well-being to continue,” Holmes said.

The problem of homelessness in Vancouver has reached new heights in recent months, according to a presentation by the city’s homelessness response coordinator, Jamie Spinelli, outlining why homelessness in Vancouver is an emergency.

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Construction continues at the third Safe Stay community in downtown Vancouver on Tuesday morning, Nov. 7, 2023. The city approved emergency declaration for homelessness on Monday night.New emergency homelessness orders will allow Vancouver to restrict more camping, move faster on solutions
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Unsheltered homelessness has increased by 226 percent since 2015. Increased use of fentanyl, isolation from the pandemic and changes to the state’s drug possession law have created the “perfect storm,” Spinelli said.

These factors have led to decreased interest in connecting with services, she said.

“We’ve reached a place where my team, emergency services and other resources are well over capacity,” she said. “And leaving people outdoors to wait for housing increases the risks of dying out there significantly and overburdens our emergency services.”

Violence, weapons and criminal activity

Spinelli said she and her team — the city’s Homeless Assistance and Resource Team — has noticed increased violence, weapons and criminal activity in homeless camps.

Despite people experiencing homelessness making up a fraction of a percent of Vancouver’s population, 10 percent of the Vancouver Police Department’s calls are related to homelessness, according to Spinelli’s presentation. More than 6,200 calls have been for five camps since 2021.

The Homeless Assistance and Resource Team has also observed housed people using homeless camps as covers for drug dealing.

“So the folks actually experiencing homelessness in those camps are being preyed upon and victimized regularly,” she said.

Spinelli said she’s been working with the department on updating policies and procedures related to homelessness and is training officers on how to respond to it.

“There were some habits formed during the pandemic by both people living unsheltered and law enforcement, largely due to law enforcement essentially being told to be completely hands off with homelessness for any reason during the pandemic,” Spinelli said.

“That caused folks outside to get very used to being left alone, and law enforcement got very used to not responding to calls related to homelessness, period, even some of those that were criminal in nature,” she said.

Spinelli said the department plans to make changes to allow all officers to refer people to Community Court — a special court for people with homelessness-related offenses, such as illegal camping, where they can engage with services to have their charges dismissed.

Spinelli said a map of where people can camp would be helpful, rather than telling people where they cannot go.

Increase in chronic homelessness

The presentation revealed data showing that people are staying homeless longer.

Chronic unsheltered homelessness — which means a person has experienced homelessness for more than a year, or four or more times in three years — has increased 238 percent in the last eight years.

Part of this is due to the lack of affordable housing in Clark County. Spinelli’s presentation showed that rent has increased 19 percent in the last five years; 51 percent of renters are cost-burdened, paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

“Once someone falls into unsheltered homelessness, it is much, much harder to stabilize and access services needed to get you inside, as well as sustain that housing once you do it.”

The total population of Clark County is growing twice as fast as Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties in Oregon, according to the presentation.

“Our growth also means some people are pushed out to the bottom, so it increases homelessness,” Spinelli said.

Spinelli pointed to other nearby cities and how their homeless population has grown to a size that is beyond manageable.

“While it may look like our problem is not as bad, if we don’t do this now that is where we are headed,” Spinelli said.

Homelessness in Vancouver requires a more immediate response, Spinelli said, while more affordable housing continues to be built.

“Some of our very standard processes for bidding, contracting, purchasing etcetera, which are in place for good reason in normal circumstances, don’t allow us to move as rapidly as we need to treat this growing crisis,” Spinelli said.

A health and safety issue

Spinelli said she and her team are concerned about more issues with health and safety in camps.

The city regularly performs camp cleanups, where people have to move their tents or they will be removed for cleaning. This year, the city is removing twice the amount of solid waste from the same number of camps as it did in 2021.

Drug use in camps has also become a major issue, Spinelli said, with 60 percent of people reporting to the city’s Homeless Assistance and Resource Team that substance abuse is a contributor to their homelessness.

“I cannot stress enough that fentanyl has completely changed the landscape and changed the game of how we respond to this,” Spinelli said.

Last year, 33 people who previously experienced homelessness, were homeless or were connected to the unhoused community died, Spinelli said. In 2023, 30 people have died so far, with more of those deaths occurring due to overdoses.

“I personally have assisted in the reversal of more overdoses just in the last six to nine months than I have in my entire career, which spans more than a decade,” Spinelli said.

After the presentation, Councilor Kim Harless said the atmosphere in the room was comparable with that of a funeral.

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“Because that’s really what we’re talking about here today,” Harless said. “There are people dying in our streets, and this is another tool that we can use to prevent that. And it’s our duty to prevent that.”

Feedback

But several people wanted the city to hold off on approving the emergency orders Monday evening.

Siobhana McEwen, executive director of the Southwest Washington Equity Coalition, voiced concern about the declaration of emergency and more interactions between police and people experiencing homelessness, almost half of which are people of color in Clark County.

“The city does not have a strong track record of equitable and safe engagement by members of the police department with our communities of color,” McEwen said. “And it is completely irresponsible and indefensible to suggest that there will be no negative repercussions of this proposal on our communities of color.”

Last year, 44 percent of Clark County’s unhoused population were people of color, according to Council for the Homeless’ Annual System Data.

McEwen said the declaration involved little community feedback or commentary.

“It is not indicative of a community that wants to find solutions or eradicate homelessness but only of treating symptoms of homelessness with Band-Aids, forced treatment and a lack of long-term planning,” McEwen said.

Beth Landry of YWCA Clark County, the county’s only domestic violence shelter, said it can be safer for survivors of domestic violence to camp outside rather than be in a shelter.

“Criminalizing homelessness not only lacks a trauma-informed approach but also further exacerbates the challenges faced by individuals already in distress,” Landry said.

Others, including state Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, expressed support for the emergency orders.

“Give these people the opportunity to at least (get into) some emergency shelters,” Harris said. “What we are doing today is not working completely — you can see that — look around.”

The council members unanimously ratified the emergency orders, saying that more action needs to be taken while affordable housing is built.

“People say ‘Well this is a Band-Aid,’ ” Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said. “But when you think about it, a Band-Aid covers an injury and allows it to heal.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

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.

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