Homelessness isn’t just a big city problem. Over the past few years, smaller communities across the Pacific Northwest have struggled with how to respond to their own growing homeless populations.
Some have cracked down – Eugene, for example, banned many dogs downtown. And Gresham has made it harder to park an RV on city streets.
In Vancouver, Washington, city councilors are debating a different approach: They’re talking about possibly making public camping easier.
At a Monday workshop session, the Vancouver City Council discussed the possibility of decriminalizing its homeless camping ordinance. The law, passed by the council in September 2015, makes it legal to camp in most public places between the hours of 9:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. After that, people sleeping on the streets are supposed to pack up their belongings and leave, or be subject to a citation or misdemeanor charge.
But some councilors are looking to change that. Many voiced frustrations with the current ordinance and questioned the need to charge individuals with a misdemeanor crime.
“We’ve been talking about this since I got elected,” said councilwoman Alishia Topper, who has been on the city council since 2013.
“We’re still chasing people around town with their carts and their belongings,” she added, saying the lack of movement on homelessness left her feeling deflated.
Topper, along with other councilors, is open to considering the reduction of the misdemeanor crime to a civil infraction. She says charging people who are already vulnerable financially only further burdens them and leaves a mark on their record that could make it more challenging to find housing.
Councilman Jack Burkman suggested the city look at alternative ways to enforce the law that didn’t include additional jail time.
“Is there community service?” Burkman said. “Is there any way of putting something in there that’s not just financial?”
City councilors also said they want to address a shortage of bathroom and storage facilities and the location and construction of a new day center.
Chad Eiken, the city’s director of community and economic development, said having a place to safely store one’s belongings is a critical step. He suggested looking into open-air storage lockers as a possible next step.
To the dismay of the city council, little movement has been made on siting a new day center. At past meetings, councilors had pointed to a possible location in the downtown area across the street from a men’s shelter, an idea that many downtown residents and business owners decried. At Monday’s meeting, that location no longer seemed to be an option.
“We’re running into a lot of ‘not in my backyard,’” said Councilman Ty Stober. “We seem to be struggling to figure out a clear path forward here to deal with that.”
Councilmember Alishia Topper agreed, saying the city would never find a perfect place. But stalling efforts would only result in a worsening situation for the city’s unsheltered as colder temperatures approach, she said.
Council members asked city staff to return next month with more options to amend the homeless camping ordinance. They plan to hold a first hearing in mid-September to discuss decriminalization and alternative methods for enforcing the law.