Camas City Council to consider camping ordinance

Police could enforce homeless camping ban only when overnight shelter is available

City of Camas officials will soon consider passing an ordinance that would address unlawful camping in the city’s public spaces and, according to officials who support the ordinance, help connect Camas residents experiencing homelessness with needed services and resources. 

The Council had a first look at the proposed “Unlawful Camping and Storage of Personal Property on Public Property” ordinance at its July 18 workshop. The Council is expected to discuss the issue again during a workshop on Aug. 15, and hold a public hearing on the matter in September. 

If enacted, the ordinance would strike the city’s general ban on camping in public spaces and replace it with much more specific language that would not only make it unlawful for “any person to camp or store personal property, including camp facilities or camp paraphernalia” on any public property, including parks and streets,” but would also allow the city to enforce the camping ban without violating a 2019 Ninth Circuit Court ruling (Martin v. City of Boise) that prohibits cities from enforcing ordinances that criminalize camping on publicly owned property when there are no other overnight shelter options available. 

Under the proposed “Unlawful Camping” ordinance, Camas police who wish to enforce the no-camping rule would first need to determine if the person who is camping unlawfully on Camas’ public property is experiencing homelessness. If so, the officer would also need to determine if the person had access to overnight shelter. If there were overnight shelter options available — most likely a shelter in Vancouver, which is part of a regional effort to prevent and end homelessness in Clark County — the officer could either provide directions to the shelter location or offer one-time transportation to the shelter. If there are no overnight shelter beds available, the Camas police officer would not be able to enforce the city’s camping ban. 

Under the proposed ordinance, any person who refuses to accept the offered overnight shelter space could be found to be in violation of a misdemeanor charge and subject to fines of up to $1,000 and/or imprisonment for up to 90 days. The ordinance as written would also require the courts to authorize community service in lieu of paying a fine for those individuals who have no money to pay $100 to $1,000 in fines.

Camas Mayor Steve Hogan, who has been working with other Clark County officials and mayors on the countywide Ending Community Homelessness Organization (ECHO) since January, told The Post-Record this week that city officials recognize the fact that individuals experiencing homelessness and camping in the city’s public spaces are Camas community members and that reiterated that “it is not a crime to be homeless.”

In fact, added Jeff Swanson, the city’s interim city administrator, many of those experiencing homelessness in Camas have close ties to the area and have likely opted to set up camp in Camas’ parks or open spaces because they have family members or friends in the area who can sometimes help them find needed resources. 

“They are a part of the community,” Swanson said of the few people who may be found camping in the city’s parks or in open spaces such as along the Washougal River Greenway Trail.

The Camas City Council’s three-member Homelessness Strategies Subcommittee recently found there are approximately 12 people experiencing homelessness in the city who are currently camping in Camas’ public spaces, but added the city’s population of residents experiencing homelessness also includes dozens of other people who are less visible, perhaps staying with friends or family or living in their vehicles.  

The subcommittee, which included Council members Leslie Lewallen and Bonnie Carter and former Councilwoman Shannon Roberts, presented its findings to the rest of the Council during a July 5 workshop. 

The group said the majority (92%) of the individuals experiencing homelessness in Camas are from the area and have family or friend connections in Camas. 

Officials have said they want to help connect unsheltered residents with the array of Clark County agencies and organizations focused on helping people experiencing homelessness find safe long-term shelter, stable employment, mental health and addiction assistance and other resources designed to break the cycle of homelessness. 

“We know this is going to be a continued, coordinated effort with many jurisdictions and organizations … to connect the services available to people in need,” Lewallen said. 

Hogan said officials also were  concerned about the impacts campers are having or could have on the city’s sensitive and critical lands and needed to take steps to address public health concerns such as public urination and defecation and the build up of waste and potentially toxic materials that often accompany homeless encampments in urban areas. 

As written, the ordinance would “maintain public property consistent with its intended use while balancing the needs of those experiencing homelessness with the impact on the entire community and avoiding environmental impacts to the (city’s) waterways and sensitive lands.”

If Council passes the new camping ordinance, Camas police would enforce the ordinance “at all times within 100 feet of the nearest edge of the edge of the Columbia River, Washougal River, Lacamas Lake, Lacamas Creek and Round Lake,” as well as in “any part of Crown Park, Forest Home Park, Dorothy Fox Park, Grass Valley Park and Prune Hill Sports Park, or within 200 feet of any play or sports field, playground equipment, or picnic areas or shelters within any other designated city park.” 

 

County group shows scope of homelessness crisis in region

During the most recent meeting of the countywide ECHO group on Monday, Aug. 8, the nonprofit Council for the Homeless (CFH) — a group that seeks to end homelessness in Clark County — updated the region’s mayors on not only the scope of homelessness in the county but also on some recent efforts to connect those individuals and families experiencing homelessness with overnight shelters, longer-term living solutions and other resources. 

According to CFH’s most recent “point in time” count, conducted on Feb. 24, there are 1,197 people experiencing homelessness in Clark County — up 31% from the “point in time” number recorded in January 2020. Of that 1,197: 625 people were unsheltered, 389 were in emergency shelters and 183 were in transitional housing. 

The majority (57%) of those experiencing homelessness in Clark County in 2022 are men; 223 people are considered “chronically homeless” — a number that has increased 13% since 2020 — 51 people are domestic violence survivors; and while 14% of Clark County residents are people of color, 27% of those experiencing homelessness are people of color. 

The CFH representative also told the mayors the county saw an increase from 2020 to 2022 in the number of people experiencing homelessness who were considered “sheltered,” mainly due to an increase in the number of available, year round emergency shelter beds in Clark County, the fact that family shelters had reopened after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and a greater number of people who were now in transitional housing. 

Compared to 2020, there were 42 more people staying in family emergency shelters in 2022 and 49 fewer people in families with children who were experiencing unsheltered homelessness, the group told ECHO members. However, the number of seniors experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the county continues to grow. According to CFH, “since 2017, (the county has) seen a consistent annual growth in the number of seniors age 62 (and older) experiencing unsheltered homelessness,” and though Bertha’s Place, a regional shelter that prioritizes those age 55 and older, opened in 2022, the group said the number of unsheltered seniors in 2020 (37 seniors — up from three in 2017) remained unchanged in 2022. 

The group noted that there is an “affordable housing crisis” in Clark County, with a 2.7% vacancy rate for one-bedroom apartments countywide and a wage of $25.60 an hour ($53,248 a year) needed to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Clark County in 2022. 

In June 2021, the Clark County Council approved spending $15.5 million in federal COVID relief funds to address homelessness in the region. CFH told the mayors this week that $4.4 million of that is earmarked for outreach services, while $5 million is for shelters, $800,000 is for motel vouchers, $300,000 is for data collection and coordination; $2.5 million is for rapid rehousing and $2.5 million is for permanent, supportive housing. 

The money has allowed countywide homeless outreach teams to increase their staff by 15 people and to increase their outreach to Clark County residents experiencing homelessness who are currently sleeping in parks and in other public spaces by increasing the teams’ availability during evening hours and on weekends. 

The group said the federal COVID funds also have increased the number of shelter beds available and noted that the Clark County shelter system will be able to serve 364 more people in 2022 thanks to the county’s use of funds from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). 

The group also said the ARPA-funded outreach teams have met with 30 encampments between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022, helping 253 people leave camping for more permanent housing during that time. 

The group said Clark County’s investment in homelessness outreach and emergency shelter has increased by 835% and 400%, respectively, since 2019. 

Police chief: ‘criminal justice system not best entity to deal with this issue’

Though the new ordinance would give police the ability to enforce a citywide ban on camping in public spaces when overnight shelters are available, Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey has told Camas City Council members it is ineffective to criminalize homelessness. 

“Police have been … on the front line of homelessness, I would say inappropriately,” Lackey told the Council during its July 5 workshop. “If we’re looking at an ordinance-based enforcement policy, we’re looking at putting people who don’t have a home in jail. Really, that’s the end of the road. I think, in the last decade, the criminal justice system has been judged to not be the best entity to deal with this issue.”

Lackey said he understands the police may be called in when individuals experiencing homelessness are committing crimes or being violent, but said “police and sheriff’s departments have been a dumping ground for this issue, and it hasn’t had great results.”

“If people are offered shelter and choose a lifestyle of the street instead – and it probably will happen – we need to decide, ‘What will be the consequences of that?’ And there are experts out there who may say that is not the best use of resources to use jails for the unhoused.”” 

Councilman Don Chaney, the city’s police chief prior to Lackey, said in early July that he was not advocating for jail time for unsheltered citizens who violate the city’s proposed camping ordinance, but wondered what the city’s options were. 

“I’m not advocating for jail,” Chaney said. “Nevertheless, we can’t have a tent in the middle of a park where there are children, where they are trying to practice on the field. We’re hearing from citizens that they don’t want their children there.” 

Hogan said city staff and officials frequently receive calls from concerned community members regarding unhoused individuals.

“We get people who are compassionate, fearful and spiteful,” the mayor said, adding that he hopes officials can help educate the greater community on the causes of homelessness and the fact that criminalizing homelessness can cost taxpayers even more than they might suspect, considering that most people living on the streets or in parks cannot afford to pay the fines imposed on them for illegally camping and the costs associated with keeping people in jail. 

Instead of turning to jail and fines as a first resort, the new ordinance would allow Camas police officers to connect individuals experiencing homelessness in Camas with the shelters and other resources available to them on a countywide level. 

“ECHO was created in January and is Clark County’s effort to recognize that all seven cities in the county now have a seat at the table and need to work on how these (federal and state funds to prevent and end homelessness) are going to be used,” Hogan said on July 5. “There are between 75 and 100 agencies (and nonprofits in Clark County) working on this … and the things that create homelessness are so varied, it’s incredible. If we can get people to use these services before they become homeless, it will save everybody a lot of money.” 

 

Officials say connecting people to available resources key

The proposed ordinance states that “the city of Camas will continue to treat homeless individuals with respect and dignity, striving to minimize harm and trauma, and in recognition that compassion in the truest sense is to be best served by enforcing reasonable limitations on the use of public facilities while offering assistance to those who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances.”

Hogan said current plans call for teams of mental health and homelessness professionals — organized on a county level — to come into the cities, including Camas and Washougal, to meet with individuals experiencing homelessness in an effort to not only help people find solutions for their most immediate needs such as overnight shelter, food and water, but also to strategize ways to help them find long-term solutions like stable housing, employment and mental health care. 

Camas officials have also discussed educating various city staff members — including police officers but also maintenance staff, library staff, parks staff and others who might regularly come into contact with those experiencing homelessness — on the available resources in the city and the county. 

“We know it’s the multiple touches by all the different types of staff and community members that, on one day, a person (experiencing homelessness) is willing to say, ‘OK, tell me more about that,’” Councilwoman Bonnie Carter, a member of the city’s homelessness strategies subcommittee, said during the Council’s July 5 workshop. “We’re not trying to create our own program here, but we’re advocating to educate people on those 75 to 100 organizations that are already available to people in our community.”

Carter added that officials hoped the proposed ordinance, if approved, would provide Camas police with another tool to “use for people who have been offered those resources, so our parks are not campgrounds for (unhoused individuals) who are choosing to not accept help.”