Jamie Spinelli stands bundled up in warm clothes and a mask, in front of a few tents at a homeless camp in Clark County. The weather is rainy.

Jamie Spinelli stands at a homeless camp in Clark County. Spinelli, Vancouver's homeless resources manager, said hotel vouchers for unsheltered people became more widely available last year during the pandemic.

Troy Brynelson / OPB

The city of Vancouver is preparing to sanction campsites for unsheltered people, the first time such an effort has been undertaken in the city.

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A plan unveiled Monday would set up at least one organized camp somewhere in the city limits by September, with a capacity for between 20 and 40 campers, according to the plan. City staff aims to have as many as three campsites running by December.

Vancouver City Council on Monday seemed unanimous in support of the plan, but no official action was taken.

Where the proposed camps would go remains clear. Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said she and other councilors are keenly aware that choosing a location will be the most important decision in the plans.

“That will be the hardest part,” McEnerny-Ogle told OPB. “As soon as you say we’re going to set up a supportive camp, you have to share with everyone what that means, what it looks like.”

Public backlash over homeless services is familiar in Vancouver, and city officials said they plan a blitz of public outreach.

Jamie Spinelli, Vancouver’s homeless response coordinator, said the city has a rough list of possible locations, but first needs to discuss with neighborhood groups. The city already launched an online survey tool.

“It’s going to be a huge community engagement effort,” Spinelli said. “I’m really trying to avoid this becoming a rift between the community and the city because it was a challenge after the navigation center.”

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In 2018, Vancouver bought an unused state government building for $4.3 million and converted it into a day center near downtown. However, neighbors fought the center for attracting hundreds of people to the area during the day, then leaving them nowhere to go when it closed in the evening. The center permanently closed during the pandemic.

Multiple, relatively smaller campsites could balance out those concerns, Spinelli said.

“Many (neighbors) just felt like having one center in the city potentially draw everyone who lived on the streets was just too much for that neighborhood,” she said.

Campsites could accomplish much of what the center set out to accomplish, Spinelli added. Campsites could make it easier to deliver services like treatment for substance abuse or behavioral health problems. They could also have bathrooms, handwashing stations and storage space.

The city also plans to contract out for more mailboxes. When the day center closed, Spinelli said she had to clear out mailboxes and found dozens of uncashed checks and housing vouchers.

“It’s largely because when the center closed, people moved away,” she said. “That’s a lot of housing opportunities lost, just because people didn’t have access to their mail.”

According to Spinelli, who has done outreach in Vancouver for more than a decade, Vancouver has at least 500 chronically homeless residents. The annual count of unsheltered persons was constrained last year by the pandemic.

The plan released Monday included more than campsites, as well. It called for more organized parking lots for people who live out of their vehicles or RVs, expanding trash collection and growing the city’s homeless outreach team.

While city councilors broadly supported the plan, a lot of planning still has to take shape. It’s unclear how much each piece will cost. For example, the city may have to contract a vendor to keep campsites safe and secure.

McEnerny-Ogle, however, said she felt the council’s embrace of the plan showed the city is ready to take another swing at homeless services. She noted Spinelli’s plan draws from approaches that have succeeded in other cities.

“We’re working off the experiences and failures,” she said. “We’re not inventing something new.”

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