Think Out Loud

Vancouver aims to open supportive homeless camps by end of the year

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Aug. 16, 2021 5:55 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, Aug. 16

A person sleeps outside a tent at one of the most populated homeless camps near downtown Vancouver. The city is preparing to establish its own supported campsites this year.

A person sleeps outside a tent at one of the most populated homeless camps near downtown Vancouver. The city is preparing to establish its own supported campsites this year.

Troy Brynelson / OPB


The city of Vancouver is moving forward with its plan to create a series of sanctioned camps for people experiencing homelessness. The camps would be supported, meaning that they would include sanitation and possibly other facilities like showers, kitchens and common spaces. They would also include someone to help connect campers to other social services. Jamie Spinelli, the city’s homeless response coordinator, joins us.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. A few weeks ago, we talked about the city of Portland’s plan to build six so-called ‘safe rest villages’. These will be essentially outdoor homeless shelters. Portland officials are still narrowing down a list of about 70 potential city-owned land parcels that could be used for the safe rest villages. Meanwhile, the city of Vancouver is moving forward with its own new approach to homelessness. Officials there want to create three sanctioned supportive campsites this year. More could follow. Jamie Spinelli is the Homeless Response Coordinator for the City of Vancouver. She joins us with the details. Jamie Spinelli, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Jamie Spinelli: Hi, thank you for having me.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. Can you describe the city’s vision for what these camps will be?

Spinelli: Sure. I think [they’re] very similar to what you described Portland is working on at the moment. It’s truly just a place, like the analogy that my partners and I use frequently, is just to stop the bleeding. We’ve got a lot of folks living outside. That number has grown pretty significantly over the last couple of years. As we’re working on housing and creating more shelter, people are living in pretty unhealthy conditions. This is just a way to introduce more health and safety to the folks who are living outside and working on resolving their homelessness.

Miller: You said that the number of people experiencing homelessness in Vancouver has increased recently. What is your best estimate right now for the number of people who are living unsheltered in Vancouver these days?

Spinelli: Within Vancouver City limits, I think our best estimate is around 500 people.

Miller: And then Clark County more broadly?

Spinelli: At least a few 100 more in unincorporated areas, I would assume.

Miller: This is called a pilot project. What does that mean?

Spinelli: We intend for it to be temporary, no matter what, because we also want to be working on more long term, sustainable solutions as we’re doing this. But it is something that Vancouver has not yet done before in this magnitude. We had one campsite opened last summer on church property. That was more of a COVID response. It just lasted a few months. So we want to try it out and let’s see how this works. If it doesn’t work, we can try to go a different direction or shift. But I think we’re at a place where something’s gotta be done.

Miller: What services or amenities are there going to be? Because the phrase that I’ve seen is this is a supportive campsite, also a sanctioned one. So what does it mean for it to be supportive?

Spinelli: The city will be supplying kind of the physical infrastructure. At a minimum porta-potties, handwashing stations, and we’re also looking at ways that we might be able to bring in showers and laundry. Then it will also be supported by a nonprofit provider here. The ask for those nonprofits are to come in and provide stabilizing services, whether that’s peer support or partnering with other agencies to bring in mental health and SUD treatment, medical assistance all to the site. Because that’s one of the challenges, that a lot of folks are not able to access all of their needed services very frequently, if at all, because everything is all over the place and most people are just concerned with meeting their most basic needs each day. So it’s very difficult to fit in treatment and employment search and things like that when you’re just spending your day looking for a restroom or where to take a shower or where you’re going to eat your meals. The goal is really to just bring as much to them on-site as possible.

Miller: Have you yet identified who is going to be providing those services and who is going to be running these camps after the city sets them up?

Spinelli: We have not identified anyone yet. We just closed our request for proposals last week, and are now in the evaluation stage of looking at all those proposals.

Miller: What about where these camps are going to be when it comes to a situation like this. That’s often one of the trickiest issues, especially with not in my backyard-ism.

Spinelli: We’re just behind Portland in that. Where we currently are with City Council is we’ve presented some recommendations for site selection and they’re reviewing whether or not they like the criteria that we’ve presented to them and they’ll let us know and if that moves forward. Then we’ll go through and narrow down what sites we can utilize potentially.

Miller: But we’re talking about city-owned land here, right? Not private property?


Spinelli: Currently, we’re just looking at publicly owned property.

Miller: So what are the criteria that are being considered right now that would define the eventual list of possibilities?

Spinelli: We’re looking at utilizing the temporary use permit process. So, any zone in which temporary use is permitted. These are just the recommendations that we’ve made as well as a city-owned right-of-way. So permits for that, and then we narrow down to... we want to avoid as much as possible places with higher economic vulnerability. We’ve got a map layer that shows those areas.

Miller: What is economic vulnerability? What’s a place with higher levels of economic vulnerability?

Spinelli: Oh, gosh, I’m trying to think of what those areas are. Just areas that have historically had folks living there that are lower income. Because what we don’t want to do is overburden an area that potentially already has some challenges. I know that when the navigation center opened previously, that was one of the concerns that neighbors in the area had expressed was this was already a struggling area and we’ve worked very hard to get it to a better place, and then now this. So, we’re just trying to make sure that it’s spread around the community as equitably as possible and does the least amount of harm to any one particular area.

Miller: You’re talking very carefully, which I appreciate, but this gets to one of the issues that always comes up. We heard this when we talked to representatives from three different neighborhood organizations in Portland just a couple weeks ago. We talked to folks, all of whom represent and live in neighborhoods, that have some sites that were on this list of 71 potential sites for Portland. What they pointed out is, when they looked at the map of where these potential sites were, there were a couple wealthy neighborhoods in Portland on the west side or inner east side that had zero proposed sites. In other words, this is the opposite of a poor neighborhood, which you’re trying to avoid. They’re saying that in the richest neighborhoods, most of those weren’t even on the list. Will rich neighborhoods potentially be on the list in Vancouver?

Spinelli: They could potentially, and so that’s where some of the other criteria come into play. We want to make sure that there’s also transit nearby, bus stops nearby. Lot size needs to be a decent size. I need them to be hopefully near a water main so we can tap into water there. So there’s a variety of other things that we need to make sure on site for usage and that all. Theoretically, yes, these could be in richer neighborhoods, as long as those richer neighborhoods, or any neighborhood quite frankly, has and can also meet the other criteria.

Miller: So as I mentioned, the plan or the hope is that three of these camps will be up and running by the end of the year. But it’s August now. It’s the middle of August, and the city has yet to choose the people who are going to be managing these camps or to find possible sites for them, let alone the actual sites having been finalized. Can you really put these together in the next three plus months?

Spinelli: I do feel like we could potentially have a couple opened in the next few months,

but maybe I’m an idealist. That’s entirely possible. But we hope to. We’re going to move as quickly as we can. Historically, governments don’t move very fast, but I think that this project in particular has moved along pretty quickly given that we’re having to change a camping ordinance and amend that ordinance. There’s a lot that’s taken place thus far. The city, the council, has basically said this is a top priority. They’re willing to do what it takes to move it on as quickly as we can.

Miller: You mentioned earlier that something like 500 people are living unsheltered within the city limits of Vancouver right now. I’ve read that at each one of these planned sanctioned camps, there could be at most 40 people staying there, maybe fewer. Obviously, at best, it’s something like less than a quarter of the people who are experiencing homelessness right now. So, given that there won’t be enough space for everybody, who’s going to decide who can actually live in these sanctioned camps?

Spinelli: Some of that is still to be determined because that will be something that will be discussed with the operators that we eventually contract with and how they want to go about letting people in. My hope, though, is that we’re able to take direct referrals from outreach workers, from individuals themselves, from law enforcement etcetera. My hope at the moment is that we can initially, for the first few, target some of those larger camps that are a little more, perhaps, unsafe or unhealthy. Those who are at greater risk of fires. We’ve had a few camps out here that have had multiple fires on site. Just get those to a safer place and then just plug away as we get them open.

Miller: When you say target, does that mean shutting down some of those existing unsanctioned camps or pleading with people to move to these soon to be newly opened sanctioned camps? I ask this because this has been another issue that advocates for houseless people have been talking about recently, the fear that once cities around the West Coast open up these kinds of sanctioned places, it gives law enforcement more ability to shut down unsanctioned camps.

Spinelli: Our intent is not to just go shutting down entire camps. I don’t believe there’s going to be a need for pleading. The front end work that I’ve done coming up with this plan was a lot of outreach to folks outside. I’ve been an outreach worker in this community for over 10 years. So I know most of the folks who were living out there and most of them are very excited about the openings of these camps. I don’t believe any pleading is going to be necessary. It’s just offering an alternative to where they’re currently living. Some people are living in muck and rat infested places and that’s not where people want to be living. They would like better options, and options that can happen more quickly than the housing typically comes online. So the goal is not to just be shutting down unsanctioned sites. There will be, however, some included in the ordinance will be the addition of a no camping buffer around the sanctioned campsites, again, so that we’re not overburdening one particular area. If there are camps within 1000 ft of where we set up a sanctioned campsite, those would have to move. But we’re not looking at just outright shutting them down.

Miller: What did that work entail? 10 years as an outreach worker, what were you doing for that decade?

Spinelli: A lot of relationship building. That always sounds very fluffy to people and annoying, but quite frankly, I think that in my experience, what folks outside, other than shelter, are missing the most is community. When I first started doing this work, I was also working part time for the CASA program here, because that was what I wanted to do with my education was work with kids in the foster care system,

Miller: Court Appointed Special Advocate, somebody who is just there for the kids. You are, as opposed to having any other person or entity that you’re representing, you’re there for the kid?

Spinelli: Correct. So the other piece of my job when I was there was to audit all the case files, both former and current in the building. I did do that twice a year, which quite frankly is traumatizing, reading all of those stories. Then I picked up a part time job doing street outreach and I started meeting people whose files I had audited. So then it became very crystal clear how people end up outside. There are just people in this world who don’t have safety nets. They don’t have a friend or a church or a family member that can take them in when their life gets turned upside down. A lot of these folks also have not enjoyed the benefit of having a frame of reference for what it is to finish school, get a job, go to college, pay your light bill every month, look for an apartment. They typically are pretty jaded by the system, which has failed them.

Miller: Can I ask, how do you build and maintain trust when at a certain point you, as you know, whether before as an outreach worker, but I imagine even more so now as a city employee, this Homeless Response Coordinator, you’re a piece of the system, of a big messy, overlapping system of governments. How do you build trust and maintain it?

Spinelli: I did that. I did that over the last 10 years. Just consistently showing up, whether I had something to offer or I didn’t, I consistently showed up. I showed up when I was being paid to do so. I showed up when I was not being paid to do so. I worked very hard to advocate for the needs of folks who are outside. They were just beyond housing. I think a lot of organizations focus so much on the housing that the daily basic needs get overlooked for the larger picture. They know that and I have great relationships with folks outside. Now I was somewhat concerned with moving to the city, like what will that look like now? But I think probably the most heartwarming... I got a lot of congratulations when I got this job, but I think the one that I was most proud of is when I went out to the camp that’s outside Share House right now, and I was telling people that my role had shifted, my role had changed, and this is what I do now. One of the guys yelled, “Olga, check this out, we have a voice at the city!” So far it has not been problematic with my relationships with folks outside. They feel like they have a voice that is now being heard within the city hall.

Miller: I can imagine why that felt good. It also seems like it’s a lot on your shoulders. Do you think that you can make that voice heard by the people in power?

Spinelli: I think that I am. So far I am. Sanctioned campsites are something that I advocated for many years before coming to the city. And now, here we are. We’ve got a council that’s supportive of it, a city management that’s supportive of it, and we’re just going to try and do the best we can with it. You know, I think that, with housing, obviously there is only the best intention there. But I think that people have to stay alive long enough to make it into that housing, and I think that leaving people outside to suffer and potentially die before they reach the housing, I don’t find that to be compassionate.

Miller: That’s Jamie Spinelli, the Homeless Response Coordinator for the City of Vancouver.

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