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News / Clark County News

Vancouver officials explain emergency declaration for homelessness

City manager says purpose is to make community safer

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter, and
Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: November 7, 2023, 7:37pm

In a Tuesday interview with The Columbian, Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes, Vancouver’s Homelessness Response Coordinator Jamie Spinelli and Vancouver City Councilor Ty Stober spoke in more detail about why a civil emergency for homelessness was declared and plans for addressing the issue.

On Monday night, the Vancouver City Council ratified three emergency orders in response to a growing number of people experiencing homelessness and “behavioral shifts” in camps in recent months.

Spinelli attributes those shifts to the pandemic, changes in the state’s drug possession law and increased use of fentanyl.

‘Oversaturated’ camps

Spinelli said the reason why the city wanted the ability to close parts of public property to camping is due to a handful of spaces that are “oversaturated” with human belongings and waste.

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“Having that much in one space is very difficult to try to manage,” she said. “And we’ve reached a place in some of those spaces where, despite all of our best efforts and all the tools that we have, there are some places that we cannot effectively support and cannot effectively keep those individuals safe.”

Spinelli said the ability to close areas acts as a pressure relief valve, reducing the negative impacts on people living in the camp and surrounding communities.

Holmes said the city has not made any decisions yet on specific areas that may be closed to camping.

Bridge shelter

Officials said they also haven’t decided where to locate the city’s bridge shelter, a 150-bed congregate shelter that would offer hygiene facilities and connections to community service providers.

“There is not a single neighborhood in the entire city that will not have concerns and objections about any facility that serves chronically homeless,” said Holmes. “Even the neighborhoods where there is a higher level of understanding and support for investment in these services are going to have serious reservations about it.”

Holmes said city officials will pursue a pathway that balances the critical urgency and need to invest in additional resources with community engagement.

“Today, we don’t have a site … but we will be wanting to identify that very quickly. Because even with the orders ratified by council, it’s still remarkably swift to have a shelter of this capacity with the wrap-around services to be established in a year,” said Holmes.

According to the presentation, the shelter would be complete by the end of 2024. Land availability and finding providers for the shelter may also present obstacles, Holmes said.

“Why don’t we have a second Safe Park today? Because we are struggling to find the land. Why don’t we have a fifth Safe Stay? Because we are struggling to find the land. It is challenging on so many fronts,” said Stober.

Police policy changes

Spinelli said the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into everything, including how law enforcement officers interacted with campers. Officers got accustomed to being hands-off during the pandemic, she said.

Many officers were hired during the pandemic and do not know how the city responded to homeless camp complaints before the pandemic.

She and Vancouver Police Officer Tyler Chavers have rewritten the department’s policy and procedure for dealing with homelessness issues so officers have a clearer understanding of how they should respond.

“These are calls that you can respond to because these are criminal in nature that have nothing to do with someone’s housing status. A trespass is a trespass no matter who is committed,” Spinelli said.

The city is making changes to allow all officers to refer people to Community Court — a special court for people with homelessness-related offenses where they can engage with services to have their charges dismissed. About half of officers now have that ability, she said.

Holmes emphasized that the declaration is to make a safer community as a whole — and not just to protect housed people.

“The role of law enforcement is very much a minor role and it’s very much a trailing role. We’re really leading with services with engagement and with compassion,” he said.

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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.