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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Vancouver council decides to not expand camping bans because ‘it might make it worse for everyone’

November's emergency declaration opened options for the city but adding more areas to a camping ban comes with its own issues

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: March 12, 2024, 2:17pm

When the city of Vancouver declared homelessness to be a civil emergency in November, it opened new options for restricting camping. But on Monday, city staff recommended holding back on changes.

“Some of our internal conversation in preparation for this meeting today was, ‘Would enacting any ordinance changes now actually improve the situation for anybody — people experiencing homelessness plus the community at large?’ ” City Manager Eric Holmes said.

Holmes told the Vancouver City Council he spoke with Jamie Spinelli, the city’s homeless response manager before the workshop.

“And where we landed was really ‘no.’ In a lot of ways, it might make it worse for everyone,” he said.

The city declared the civil emergency due to increases in substance use, overdoses, violence, victimization, fires, untreated mental and physical health conditions, lack of engagement with services, difficulty tending to basic needs, criminal activity and a build-up of biohazards and solid waste in camps.

Spinelli examined ways to enforce camping that might address these issues.

If the city banned camping in more areas, that might spread out the impacts of camping and lessen predatory behavior, she explained to the council Monday.

Examples of locations the city council could expand camping bans included 1,000 feet from all shelters; 500 feet from freeway onramps and offramps; within all residential zones and sensitive ecological areas; and on park land intended for public use.

Spinelli said three large camps would be affected by the changes: those near the Share men’s shelter, along the Burnt Bridge Creek Trail and scattered along Interstate 205 offramps and onramps near Mill Plain Boulevard.

The changes to the ordinance would break up these camps, resulting in more but smaller camps throughout the city. As it stands, having fewer sites with more people makes it easier for city staff and outreach workers to find people, Spinelli said.

Limiting camping in most of the city would cause people to camp in parking strips along sidewalks, which could result in strife between people camping and the larger community.

Spinelli recalled a group of 10 people who camped near a Starbucks on Andresen Road for six months.

“The amount of conflict that occurred just with that small of a camp in such a small period of time — I mean, that would be exponential all over the city,” she said.

In the future, Spinelli could see banning camping around all shelters, not just Safe Stays and the Safe Park where camping is already banned in a 1,000-foot radius.

Cities like Vancouver with tight shelter space are supposed to increase their shelter capacity when further restricting camping. That’s because of a 2018 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals saying camping ordinances cannot be enforced if there is no shelter space available.

Holmes said the city will have to wait until more shelter is built before it can expand its unlawful camping ordinance.

Even without changes to the ordinance, the civil emergency declaration already allows the city to close up to 48 acres at a time to camping in specific circumstances when camping in an area especially unsafe for the people living there, Spinelli said.

The city has plans to build a 150-bed congregate shelter, but staff are struggling to find a place to put it. The city may have to look outside of Vancouver city limits for a location, Councilor Diana Perez said.

“I do agree that until we get that shelter space in place, it’s not going to make sense,” said Councilor Kim Harless.

After the shelter is built, which should happen by the end of 2024 or early 2025, the city should reassess how it enforces camping, Spinelli said. But for now, the city should focus on building shelter beds.

“Really, the shift we’re trying to talk about here is, instead of where people cannot be, where can they be until we create other places indoors that are safe and supported?” Spinelli 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.