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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Feb. 28, 2024

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Clark County, La Center consider restricting camping on public property

Rules meant to help homeless people, officials say

By , Columbian staff reporter

Amid the rise of homelessness in Clark County, the La Center City Council and the Clark County Council are considering restricting how people can camp on public property in their jurisdictions.

Officials said their goal is to make people experiencing homelessness connect with resources through referrals to community court, where they could get assistance. Neither jurisdiction has ordinances banning camping, although both have restrictions against overnight parking and camping in parks.

The county has been considering the idea of an unlawful camping ordinance for years, according to county officials, but finally approved a draft on Sept. 27 to move to a yet-unscheduled public hearing.

“I think it’s pretty clear to most people that this is good, not just for the public but the people camping,” said Clark County Councilor Karen Bowerman.

Community Court shows promise

More people referred to Community Court are graduating rather than choosing not to opt in and go through the regular court process, according to data from the District Court.

Clark County’s Community Court has had 77 referrals since it launched in April. Twenty-two people have graduated from the court, with four of those graduates ending up with new charges and being again referred to the court, according to Beth Robinson, Therapeutic Specialty Courts Coordinator.

Fourteen people were referred but chose not to opt in, instead going through the regular court system. In most of these cases, people didn’t show up, Robinson said.

Three people have been approved to participate, and 15 people have been referred but not yet approved.

Currently, the court has 20 active participants who are working toward graduation. Three more have opted into community court, but now have warrants.

“Because of the transient nature of most of our participants, failing to appear is not unusual,” Robinson said. “We recognize this and will keep their Community Court case open for six months once a warrant is issued.”

Most of the time, people can reengage in the program after receiving warrants, Robinson said.

—Alexis Weisend

La Center considered the possibility of an ordinance for the first time the same day and plans to hold multiple workshops on the topic.

With no shelters and its number of homeless people nearly doubling between 2021 and 2022, La Center is exploring its options for camping restrictions while working with the county to extend resources.

“We’re going to get some outreach going in La Center,” said La Center Mayor Tom Strobehn. “At the same time, we do have to have some laws in the books that protect the residents.”

Clark County’s draft ordinance

Clark County’s draft ordinance largely reflects Vancouver’s unlawful camping ordinance.

It would ban 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.

The draft ordinance also bans camping in vehicles from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on county property.

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

The draft ordinance additionally 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.

A section of the draft ordinance addresses unlawful fire, permanent or temporary structures and environmental damage — a section not included in Vancouver’s code. Starting a fire around a campsite, temporary or permanent structures that are not readily portable items used for shelter (such as tents), and causing environmental damage around a campsite would all be banned on public property.

Sgt. Chris Skidmore of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office said that environmental damage from campsites on county property has been a concern for the sheriff’s office. He said there was once a large encampment along Salmon Creek that had damaged the surrounding creek area.

Community court a focus

Violations of the county ordinance will result in a misdemeanor. However, anyone cited under the ordinance would likely be referred to community court.

Launched in April, Clark County’s Community Court allows people with offenses relating to homelessness — such as unlawful camping or urinating in public — to engage with services that can help them with needs, including housing or addiction treatment.

Once the offender meets certain conditions set out by the court, their charges will be dismissed.

However, camping ordinances cannot be enforced if there is no shelter space available at that time, per a 2018 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Sgt. Todd Barsness said the primary purpose of the ordinance would not be enforcement.

“That enforcement component would be a last ditch effort on the part of the sheriff’s office, because I can tell you from personal experience that citing somebody in the court, making a custodial arrest of someone in these situations does not solve the problem,” he said.

“It prolongs the problem, and it simply delays the problem.”

Councilor Sue Marshall asked why it’s not possible to connect people with resources without the need for enforcement.

Barsness said the sheriff’s office will still have the ability to help people without citing them, but people experiencing homelessness can sometimes be resistant to getting help because of trust issues with authority figures or negative past experiences.

“I see this as a solution to steering the public who for a variety of different reasons, in many situations, is resistant to services,” he said. “This gives us the ability to direct them to those certain services, creating partnerships with advocacy group and services that are available to the public.”

Homelessness in La Center

According to Council for the Homeless’ annual systems data, La Center’s number of homeless people increased from 12 in 2021 to 23 in 2022.

Rising rents have contributed to an increase in homelessness across the county, said Strobehn, also a member of Ending Community Homelessness Organization.

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At its Sept. 27 meeting, the La Center City Council heard from La Center City Attorney Bronson Potter about possible directions for an unlawful camping ordinance and the slew of legal decisions that restrict how cities can regulate homelessness.

In short, cities cannot make an involuntary act a crime if it’s due to a state of being, such as homelessness, which is why camping ordinances cannot be enforced when no shelter is available.

The issue is, La Center doesn’t have any shelters.

“We have nothing. That’s the disturbing point … that there is nothing for them in La Center. So there’s no way to give them any type of help,” Strobehn said.

The city is working with Council for the Homeless to work on bringing some outreach into La Center.

“We’ll start having some of those outlets for people, so if we’re seeing people are camping, we can say, ‘Hey, we need you to come see these people so that we can help you out,’” Strobehn said.

The city council plans on holding workshops to further discuss a possible unlawful camping ordinance in the future.

Although the cities of Camas, Washougal, Ridgefield and Vancouver all have ordinances prohibiting unlawful camping, only Vancouver’s unlawful camping ordinance has referrals to community court.

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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.