As Vancouver plans to sanction camping for first time, city grapples with ‘complex’ legal questions

By Troy Brynelson (OPB)
July 21, 2021 1 p.m.

Vancouver staff are still sorting out where they will place the city’s first sanctioned campsite. They are also wondering if they can decide who gets to use them, and if the camps’ existence allows the city to ban camping in other places.

A first-ever plan in Vancouver to sanction campsites for unsheltered people is taking shape and so are some logistical hurdles.

Vancouver City Council on Monday heard an update from staff about difficulties finding the best candidates to supervise the campsite. Staff also laid out potential changes to local laws that could take them into less-charted legal territory.


“Candidly, it’s single-handedly the most complex legal question I’ve ever had to wrestle with,” City Attorney Jonathan Young told OPB.

Councilors made no policy decisions Monday night. Another meeting to discuss the campsites is slated for Aug. 2.

Vancouver revealed its plans to sanction a campsite on May 24 as a means to better help people who are currently unhoused. The hope is that it smooths efforts to help people stay healthy, get treatment for varied issues, and get into housing.

The city set a goal to open at least one campsite — which could serve between 20 and 40 people — in September. Staff also said they hoped to have three sites up and running come December. On Monday, it remained unclear where the campsites would go.

Jamie Spinelli, Vancouver’s homeless response coordinator, pushed back a deadline by two weeks to find an organization to run the camps. Cara Rene, a city spokesperson, told OPB that providers are “saturated with work and having difficulties with hiring and having enough staff.”


Spinelli also noted the tight, six-week window to city officials Monday night: “The turnaround time we had originally given was pretty quick.”

Deciding where to place the campsites will ultimately be a decision for councilors. Young said staff will present spots that weigh various factors and will be mindful to not scuttle campsites into areas with higher poverty rates.

“We want to … make sure we’re not burdening parts of our city that are already economically challenged,” Young said.

It’s likely Vancouver will have to rewrite some laws in order to make the sites a reality. It’s currently illegal to camp on public property in Vancouver without a permit from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and any permits are capped at two weeks.

To allow the long-term, ‘round-the-clock campsites the city may have to change its camping ordinance or make zoning changes, Young noted.

Simultaneously, Young said the city may try to deem other zones completely off-limits to camping. It’s unclear where. Young noted the city is concerned about litter near waterways, such as a trail near Burnt Bridge Creek.

The idea flirts with the famous Martin v. Boise ruling in 2018 when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled cities cannot prosecute people for sleeping on the streets if they have nowhere else to go.

“We’re definitely aligning our steps very closely to make sure we’re aligning with 9th Circuit precedent,” Young told OPB. “I’m not aware of a jurisdiction that’s done it exactly like we’re proposing.”

Councilors suggested some of the campsites be reserved for certain groups — such as women and children. But Young says that idea might also face legal scrutiny.

He told councilors that idea may run into “constitutional limitations.”