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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Clark County Council OKs camping ordinance that makes homeless eligible for Community Court

Councilors say law’s goal is to connect homeless with help

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: November 8, 2023, 6:05am

The Clark County Council adopted an unlawful camping ordinance Tuesday after a public hearing, motivated by increased levels of unsheltered homelessness across the county.

Although the ordinance makes camping under certain conditions misdemeanors, it makes the offenses eligible for Community Court — a special court for people with homelessness-related offenses where they can engage with services to have their charges dismissed.

“This is not for punitive direction,” Councilor Gary Medvigy said. “This is to provide services, to connect people with services, whether they want them or not.”

The ordinance and its changes

The eight-page-long ordinance goes into effect Nov. 17 and makes it more difficult to camp or store personal property in public places.

It bans camping between 6:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. on any county road, street, sidewalk or right-of-way; any entrance to or exit from any county-owned building or parking lot; and any county-owned or maintained buildings and parking lots. Camping in vehicles during that time frame on county property is also banned.

Camping on public property will not be allowed within 200 feet of a body of water; on any land used to operate a public water station, wastewater or stormwater facility; in parks; on the county railroad; and in natural areas.

The ordinance bans unlawful storage of personal property in public places, which is commonly associated with people experiencing homelessness, between 6:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m.

Causing environmental damage or starting a fire around a campsite is banned on public property. Erecting structures, except those that are readily portable and used for shelter, such as tents, is also banned on public property.

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The Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office added some changes to the draft ordinance Nov. 3 — four days before the public hearing — based on comments made by county councilors at their Oct. 24 meeting.

Camping on county roads, sidewalks, streets or rights-of-way that restricts a person’s access to that property will be banned. The ordinance says the provision is intended to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Last year, a group of people with disabilities brought a federal class-action lawsuit against the city of Portland for failing to remove homeless camps blocking their access to sidewalks. The city settled in June, agreeing to clear at least 500 sidewalk-blocking camps.

Another addition to the ordinance: regardless of overnight shelter availability, it will be unlawful to camp where camping poses substantial danger to any person, an immediate threat or unreasonable risk of harm to public health or safety, or a disruption to vital government services.

The prosecutors’ office got rid of a sentence that said a section on unlawful camping will not be enforced if there is no available shelter space.

A 2018 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made it so unlawful camping ordinances cannot be enforced if there is no shelter space available at that time.

Although the ordinance does not include language about when it won’t be enforced, it says law enforcement should determine whether there is available overnight shelter space for the person violating the ordinance. Any person who refuses to accept the open spot is subject to citation.

A new tool for the county

The council approved the ordinance unanimously.

The adoption comes just one day after the Vancouver City Council ratified three emergency orders related to homelessness.

At that meeting, city officials discussed a large, congregate shelter, called a bridge shelter, which is scheduled to be completed in December 2024. County councilors expressed interest in working with the city on the shelter.

“I think that is going to be important that we work together, finding a common solution for all of Clark County, not just Vancouver, not just in unincorporated Clark County, but all of us together,” county Councilor Glen Yung said.

Although violations of the ordinance will be eligible for Community Court, Medvigy voiced concern about the possibility of people not showing up. Clark County Sheriff’s Sgt. Todd Barsness said if people fail to appear, a warrant will be issued for their arrest.

“As we expand Community Court we need to expand the capability to remind people of their court dates, to provide transportation and to provide reminders before they get picked up off the street and arrested on a warrant,” Medvigy said.

Beth Robinson, Therapeutic Specialty Courts coordinator, said in an email to The Columbian that failing to appear for Community Court is not unusual, due to the housing status of most participants.

“We recognize this and will keep their Community Court case open for six months once a warrant is issued,” she said.

As of last month, the court’s data shows that most people in Community Court are graduating from the program.

Yung said the ordinance in combination with Community Court will be a tool for getting people to services.

“These are real people that we’re talking about, and I do believe that this ordinance is a reflection of that attitude,” Yung said. “We have people that are just literally suffering and dying on the streets, and we cannot allow that to continue to happen.”

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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.