Downtown Camas merchants say homelessness on rise

Police leaders, advocacy groups warn against criminalizing the unhoused

The woman calling herself “Istanbul” sat outside the Camas Public Library Monday evening, her worldly possessions spread around her.

“I’m trying to dry them,” she said, pointing to the array of blankets she’d fanned on the grassy hillside. “So they don’t get moldy.”

Asked if she was sleeping on the streets, the woman nodded.

“I try to find someplace dry, someplace covered,” she said.

She had recently been burned in a fire, the woman added, pointing to her head, which was covered in a substance that looked and smelled like mustard — something known to relieve the pain of burns.

“I lost my apartment,” she said. “There was an electrical fire.”

Did she feel safe sleeping out in the open?

“I guess,” she replied. “My clothes are still here.”

Did she need anything?

“I had ice cream today — from Dairy Queen. It was really good,” she replied. “So, I feel full today.”

Across the street, inside Camas City Hall, the city council’s Feb. 5 work session had just begun.

The woman had no way of knowing, but inside City Hall, a group of concerned business owners had gathered before the Camas City Council to talk about people just like her.

“You may have noticed an increase in the number of homeless individuals in downtown lately,” Carrie Schulstad, executive director of the Downtown Camas Association wrote in an email to Camas merchants on Monday afternoon, alerting them to the fact that a downtown merchant representative would go before the city council that evening, to share their experience and other downtown business owners’ concerns. “Hoping this will be the start of a bigger community conversation about next steps.”

As “Istanbul” took advantage of the spring-like weather and aired her blankets on the library’s lawn, Wendy DelBosque, a chef at Natalia’s Cafe in the heart of downtown Camas, spoke to the city council as a merchant representative.

Business owners and employees have recently noticed an uptick in homeless individuals sleeping and wandering in downtown Camas, DelBosque told the councilors.

“We don’t think this is going to slow down,” she said. “And we’re not trying to put anyone down … but what are we going to do to protect our community? We would like to move forward and figure out how to handle this.”

DelBosque said the past weekend had been an especially troubling one for employees inside Natalia’s Cafe. First, there was a “dine and dash,” with a customer bolting out the door before paying his tab. Then there was a drunk man passed out on the street nearby. And then, a homeless woman, who may have been “Istanbul,” entered the cafe.

“She wanted a Sprite and she paid a dollar for it,” DelBosque said. “But she was in bandages … and we were concerned for her. So, we called the police.”

‘Homelessness and mental health is not a law enforcement issue’

Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey also attended the Monday night city council work session. Afterward, he stopped to talk to DelBosque, Schulstad and Erica Slothower, one of the owners at Natalia’s Cafe.

The women wanted to know if Lackey, or another Camas Police Department representative could attend a downtown Camas merchants meeting in late February, along with a representative from the city, to talk about homelessness in downtown Camas.

One of the women suggested that the police chief might want to consider having an officer patrol the downtown area on a regular basis.

“We know people need help. We know some have stories that will break your heart,” DelBosque said. “But we have this wonderful community (in downtown Camas) and we want to preserve that … we want to keep our kids safe, keep our city safe and secure. And we don’t know what the ordinances are when it comes to these issues. We need to get educated and organized and know what we can do. What works? What doesn’t?”

Education is key, Schulstad said. That’s why she’s trying to organize a meeting with downtown merchants and representatives from the police department and the city.

“This is not something we’re familiar with,” Schulstad said of having homeless individuals in downtown Camas. “We need to get educated, so that we know what our rights are, and so we know the best way to manage the situation. If someone is sleeping on a bench in front of your business, who do you call? How is that managed?”

Schulstad said her hope is to give merchants more knowledge about the laws relating to homelessness.

“When you know how to manage something, you have a lot less anxiety,” she said. “But there are going to be some circumstances that are going to be costly to our downtown if they aren’t handled properly.”

Chief Lackey said Monday night that he understood the merchants’ concerns, but cautioned that his officers can only do so much to help business owners and the unhoused individuals — especially if the person, as was the case with the woman in bandages who came into Natalia’s Cafe last weekend, isn’t causing any trouble to other people or to themself.

“It’s not a crime to be homeless,” Lackey said, adding that, although increasing their understanding of mental health issues is a top concern for most police chiefs, the majority of police officers are still not equipped to handle a mental health emergency. When business owners call police looking for help with an individual who is homeless and, often, suffering from a mental health crisis, there are no easy solutions.

Washougal Police Commander Allen Cook, who has been dealing with similar issues for the past couple of years in Washougal’s downtown business center, agrees.

“Homelessness and mental health is not a law enforcement issue,” Cook said. “We’re not a social service agency, we’re law enforcement. And it’s not illegal to be homeless or to have mental illness.”

Cook and Lackey both caution against calling 911 to report a non-emergency involving an unhoused individual. Unless that person is presenting an immediate danger to others, there may be very little that police can do to help the situation.

“So many people, their first thought is to call 911,” Cook said. “They get mad at the officers because they refuse to do anything. The officers are following the law. Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it’s illegal.”

When it comes to who can sleep where, Camas doesn’t have any sort of code on the books. But Washougal and Vancouver have set similar guidelines: Unhoused individuals can sleep on public property between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., but then need to find other places to stay during the daytime.

Cook said his officers regularly clear unhoused individuals from the doorways of downtown Washougal businesses at 6:30 a.m., and that the people sleeping on the city streets understand and typically comply with the rules.

“We were getting a lot of calls about people blocking (business) doorways, but now, most of the homeless guys have adapted. They figured it out and moved to the government buildings, around city hall,” Cook said. “If they’re on public property, they’re OK. But they do need to pack up and leave by 6:30 in the morning.”

The police commander added that he was impressed by the efforts of city, community and law enforcement leaders in Washougal who were trying to find creative solutions to the issues surrounding homelessness.

“City Hall has been looking at options and solutions and, with very limited resources, they’ve been doing what they can to help,” Cook said, adding that the police chief in Washougal has been researching day storage options for the city’s unhoused individuals and families — where people could safely store their possessions during the daytime.

In Camas, an ’emerging understanding that there are people without homes’

Kate Budd is the new executive director for the Council for the Homeless, a nonprofit trying to find “practical solutions to prevent and end homelessness in Clark County,” but she has worked as the group’s deputy director for more than a year, and understands how communities throughout the county are approaching the issue of homelessness.

In some areas, like Washougal, Battle Ground and Vancouver, where unhoused people have been a part of the community for several years, city and business leaders have realized one of the main tenets of homeless advocates: that criminalizing people who simply have nowhere to live makes everything much worse.

“To criminalize the homeless has negative repercussions,” Budd said. “For these people to receive a fine or literally be put in jail takes them two steps back and only provides more barriers to them finding stable housing.”

Instead of looking to the police for immediate answers, Budd said she would encourage business owners and concerned community members to, instead, engage with groups like the Council for the Homeless that are doing outreach work with unhoused individuals and helping homeless people find stable housing options.

The issue of having homeless individuals sleeping in very visible areas downtown is something new in Camas and Budd understands that many people, including the merchants who approached the city council this week, may have no idea where to start.

“What we’ve seen in other small Clark County communities is an effort to understand why (the unhoused individuals) are there,” Budd said. “Like any other human being, they’re seeking safety and security … and they’re probably finding that in downtown Camas.”

Her recommendation to merchants and the downtown business association is to reach out to agencies and groups that work with unhoused populations.

“We’d be very interested in talking about constructive ways of helping the folks who are unhoused in downtown Camas and sharing ideas as to what other downtown groups have done,” Budd said. “Business groups in downtown Vancouver, for example, have been very empathetic toward the number of folks who are unhoused in their community and have realized that this is a consistent challenge and not something likely to go away without some major changes.”

Budd added that increasing rents throughout Clark County are pushing many families and individuals into homelessness, especially seniors on fixed incomes who can no longer afford increases to their housing costs. In Clark County, she added, more than 50 percent of those living without shelter are families, not individuals. In the Camas School District, nearly 50 students are currently considered homeless.

“Homelessness doesn’t discriminate,” Budd said. “It can affect anyone.”

The Council for the Homeless does send outreach workers to the Camas-Washougal area on a weekly basis to try and connect unhoused people with resources and, eventually, with some form of stable housing. Now that they know there are more unhoused people sleeping in downtown Camas, Budd said she can alert her staff and send someone to the area to seek out those individuals and help them.

“There is an emerging understanding that there are people without homes in Camas,” Budd said. “We’ve come much further with downtown business groups in places like Battle Ground and Washougal, but this is something new in Camas.”

If a business owner or community member is concerned about an unhoused individual’s mental health — like Natalia’s staff were last weekend when the bandaged woman came into the cafe — Budd recommends calling non-law enforcement resources. SHARE has trained outreach workers who can come to Camas and talk to the person and make sure they’re OK. That number is 360-952-8146. For people hoping to better understand the issue of homelessness, the Council for the Homeless has a wealth of information and resources, including numbers relating to homeless families and individuals in Clark County communities, at their site, www.councilforthehomeless.org. Budd said the National Alliance to End Homelessness, at www.endhomelessness.org, is another great resource.

As for the concerns the downtown merchants have about what many say is a recent increase in the number of homeless individuals in downtown Camas, Schulstad said she thinks being better informed is a good first step.

“I have merchants asking, ‘What can we do?’ Is there something we can do? Maybe there isn’t. Maybe this is just something we have to live with,” Schulstad said. “Really, it’s about being informed and making thoughtful decisions.”

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