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News / Clark County News

Vancouver made homelessness response a ‘clear priority’ with emergency declaration

Action allowed city to use emergency reserve funds, money for shelter remains elusive amid budget deficit

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: June 19, 2024, 6:03am

It’s been eight months since the Vancouver City Council declared homelessness to be a civil emergency. City officials say the decision has ramped up the city’s response.

November’s emergency declaration allows 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.

So far this year, the city has closed five areas to camping: behind Vancouver City Hall, near Motel 6 on Northeast Chkalov Drive, a hill leading up to the bridge on West 16th Street west of Lincoln Avenue, a field south of the downtown Vancouver Community Library and property near Northeast 112th Avenue south of Northeast Burton Road.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule any day in Grants Pass vs. Johnson, an Oregon case that challenged camping bans in jurisdictions where shelter beds weren’t available. If the lower court ruling is overturned, the city of Vancouver could ban camping more broadly rather than close particular areas, as the emergency order allows.

“We’ve had discussions about this, and my recommendation, as it stands today, is that we stay the course that we’re already on,” said Jamie Spinelli, the city’s homeless response manager.

In addition to closing areas to camping, the city has routinely cleaned campsites. The city has cleaned 181 tons of waste from campsites this year, Spinelli said.

Spinelli makes regular reports to the city council. Dozens of people have moved from the city’s Safe Stay shelter pods and Safe Park car camping locations and into housing. Many others have received help with employment, addiction and being reunited with their children, according to Spinelli’s reports.

She also shares updates on how many homeless people have died: 23 so far this year.

Shelter funding

Spinelli said the city’s emergency declaration made tackling homelessness a clear priority.

“Homelessness has kind of taken the backseat to a lot of things for the entirety of my career,” she said. “It’s not one of those things that I think a lot of people feel like they get much out of when it’s addressed. You don’t have this cool thing to go visit or see. It’s just an absence of people experiencing homelessness.”

The Vancouver City Council has been in deep discussion on how to fund a 150-bed homeless shelter despite an upcoming $43 million deficit in the city budget.

The shelter will cost about $16 million to acquire and build. Operating it will take another $6 million to $7 million per year, the city estimates.

City officials aim to open the shelter by the end of the year.

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.