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One of the cleaner and safer homeless camps, ‘City Hall camp’ to be removed to make way for Vancouver development

Those staying in the lot behind City Hall must be gone by Wednesday night

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter, and
Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: November 14, 2023, 6:05am
3 Photos
Residents of one of Vancouver&rsquo;s most visible encampments &mdash; often referred as City Hall camp &mdash; will disperse this week, as development is set for the property. Those who called the area home will move elsewhere.
Residents of one of Vancouver’s most visible encampments — often referred as City Hall camp — will disperse this week, as development is set for the property. Those who called the area home will move elsewhere. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

One of Vancouver’s most visible encampments — dubbed the “City Hall camp” by some locals due to its proximity to the building — will be largely removed Thursday to make way for development on the site.

City officials handed out papers telling people living in the camp they have to be gone by Wednesday night. A handful of people who are set to live in the city’s third Safe Stay Community, called 415 West, will stay until the pallet shelter community opens Nov. 20 five blocks north of City Hall.

The notice to leave follows an agreement between the city of Vancouver and the real estate firm LPC West in October for the development of the Waterfront Gateway — a four-building project on city-owned property to the south and west of City Hall.

The project will provide 435 housing units (including 95 affordable units), retail space, a parking garage and 2 acres of outdoor public spaces.

For approximately six months, part of that land has been home to up to 30 people experiencing houselessness. Some residents of the encampment say it was one of Vancouver’s cleaner and safer camps.

Dozens of tents were erected in a grassy, open lot, with a large sign displaying the city’s plans for the area pitched by the camp’s edge.

As a wintry breeze blanketed the encampment Friday, John Gillispie bound his tent to a cart with the rest of his possessions.

He’s a 62-year-old Army veteran who has been homeless for the last decade — six months of which he’s spent in a green tent in the City Hall camp.

“I think they should find more places like this. It’s closed in — I mean, it was great being here,” Gillispie said. “You can leave your stuff for two or three days … and no one ever stole anything from me here. There’s a lot of street respect. I enjoyed it.”

He hopes to find another camp he can move to that’s in another field and not on a sidewalk or near homes, where he thinks he’d bother residents.

“They don’t appreciate that. I’m sure they don’t,” Gillispie said.

Jp Walmer, who will turn 72 on Friday, spent the weekend scoping out other encampments in the city, trying to find his next home. He said he filled out an application to live at 415 West but has not heard any updates.

He first entered the camp on a 106-degree August day after getting evicted. He sat under a tree for shade. Now, Walmer wears a beanie and a jacket to keep warm.

Walmer hopes to stay in the area so he can continue accessing the library, where he regularly checks out books to read in his tent.

“It would be really nice to be close to the amenities,” he said. “It’s just a nice area.”

Jamie Spinelli, the city’s homeless response coordinator, said as with other camp clearings, the city has been trying to get people into Safe Stay Communities, addiction treatment centers and other shelters for the last few months.

“We have not really had any takers, unfortunately,” she said.

The camp’s removal comes a week after the city of Vancouver declared homelessness a civil emergency, opening up additional resources and giving the city manager the ability to close up to 48 acres of public land.

The timing of the camp’s closure is not related to the emergency orders and is coincidental, Spinelli said.

Construction for the property is not expected to begin until the spring of 2025, but city spokesperson Tim Becker said the city has given the developer access to the property to begin meeting its development agreement obligations, such as soil testing and staging construction.

As part of the agreement, the city is required to ensure people experiencing homelessness are not permitted to use the property for camping during the access period, Becker said.

The next step for the development project is community outreach and engagement to design the public plaza area with Vancouver Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services. Final designs and permitting will be complete in 2024.

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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.