Vancouver reconsiders law banning homeless people sleeping outside

VANCOUVER, Wash. - The Vancouver City Council is considering allowing homeless people to sleep outside overnight legally.

The city has banned people from camping outside in public places since the late 1990s.

Police stopped enforcing the ban entirely about two weeks ago after the U.S. Justice Department put out a statement of interest on Aug. 6 saying the government can't ban people from sleeping outside.

The document says banning people from doing so is like saying being homeless is illegal, which the Justice Department says is unconstitutional.

" it just keeps 'em homeless."

Tents and tarps line the streets around the Share House homeless shelter on West 13th Street in Vancouver.

Katherine Garrett, the shelter's program director, said the problem is worse than ever.

"I've never seen this much open camping before," said Garrett, who's been working with the homeless in Vancouver since 2001.

She said the Share House is now serving a record 9,000 meals per month.

"It impacts more garbage," said Garrett about the camping situation. "It impacts things that we can't provide for them. We don't have enough blankets, we don't have backpacks."

Technically, the people camping out in the area are now breaking the law.

Since 1997, the city has made camping in public places a misdemeanor.

"A lot of times it just keeps 'em homeless," said Garrett. "Getting tickets for camping, vagrancies, any of that always puts a black mark when it comes to getting employment or housing."

Police Chief James McElvain told KATU officers hadn't been cracking down on illegal camping all that much.

"On average, we were finding our officers citing about nine people in a month," said McElvain.

A proposed ordinance going before the city Monday night would allow people to camp out legally from 9:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.

McElvain said the ordinance would still allow police to crack down on other behaviors.

"You can't be drinking alcohol in public, you can't be urinating in public, you can't be fighting in public," said McElvain, "and you can't block people's pathway on a sidewalk."

Kevin Lisman, who just became homeless in March, said he wishes people would have more sympathy.

"I had a job," said Lisman. "I was working. I was making a good salary and then all of the sudden the roof fell in."

The City Council will vote on the proposal Monday night. (Update: Council has approved the first reading of proposed ordinance. It will move to a second reading and a public hearing next Monday.)

Tristia Bauman, senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty in Washington D.C., sent KATU a statement saying:

We are pleased that cities are paying attention to what the Justice Department has said, and that they are revising their criminalization policies. We are concerned, however, when cities attempt to do the bare minimum. Vancouver's law does not go far enough to address the constitutional problems identified by the federal government. Moreover, it is not the kind of constructive policy that the federal government is actively promoting, and that other cities are successful implementing. The much more cost-effective, constitutional, and humane approach is to provide permanent housing to homeless people.

"It is legal in Portland to sleep overnight in public spaces," said Dana Haynes, spokesman for Portland Mayor Charlie Hales. "That includes parks and sidewalks. It isn't legal to put up structures. That includes tents."

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