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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Enforce existing laws and build planned shelter

The Columbian
Published: March 16, 2024, 6:03am

Our first reaction to a recent Vancouver City Council decision was that officials are not using all the tools in their power to improve the local homeless situation. But as The Columbian’s Editorial Board considered and discussed the situation, we were again reminded of the issue’s complexities.

This week, council members declined to expand existing bans on public camping. The decision was a bit of a surprise; in November, the council approved the declaration of a civil emergency, which seemed to open additional avenues for removing encampments on public rights-of-way.

It is perfectly reasonable to demand that officials use every available method to connect unhoused people with services, remove unsightly and unsanitary encampments, and act in the best interests of all city residents.

What is the point, one might ask, of declaring an emergency if you are not going to treat the situation with urgency?

But several factors complicate the issue.

One is that the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments next month over the power of municipalities to enact and enforce anti-camping ordinances. In a case out of Grants Pass, Ore., the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the city may not “enforce its anti-camping ordinances against homeless persons for the mere act of sleeping outside with rudimentary protection from the elements, or for sleeping in their car at night, when there is no other place in the city for them to go.”

Similar court decisions over the past decade have limited the power of governments to simply tell homeless people to go elsewhere. A Supreme Court decision on either side will provide some guidance for elected officials and clarify the balance between individual rights and governmental power.

Other factors influencing the city’s decision were laid out by Jamie Spinelli, Vancouver’s homeless response manager. For example, Spinelli identified three areas where large camps might be impacted by an expansion of the city’s camping ban: near the Share men’s shelter, along the Burnt Bridge Creek Trail and near the Interstate 205 interchange with Mill Plain Boulevard.

Local residents passing those areas likely have wondered why the encampments are allowed to remain. But dispersing them would create more small camps throughout the city. As Spinelli said regarding a small encampment that temporarily took root along Andresen Road south of Fourth Plain Boulevard: “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.”

In other words, prohibiting camping does not solve the issue; it simply spreads it out. It also increases the likelihood of unhoused people encroaching on residential neighborhoods. As City Manager Eric Holmes told city councilors, “In a lot of ways, it might make it worse for everyone.”

That, however, does not mitigate concerns about reported increases in substance use, mental illness and criminal activity at homeless encampments. Nor does it mean that officials are powerless in addressing the situation.

Enforcement of existing laws must be paramount, particularly if they provide an enforcement mechanism to connect people with services. So should the city’s plans to build a 150-bed corrugated shelter for housing, following the success of four Safe Stay communities.

Much remains to be done. But for now, we can see the drawbacks that would come with immediately expanding bans on camping.