OutsidersInn In The News

Judge: Clark County liable for clearing out homeless camps

County must pay for belongings lost in clearing encampments

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TACOMA — A federal judge in Tacoma has found Clark County liable for seizing the residents’ belongings when it cleared out homeless encampments.

In a ruling Friday, Judge Robert Bryan said the county’s inmate work crews violated the constitutional rights of at least a half-dozen homeless residents by throwing out their tents, stoves, medication, documents and photographs during sweeps from 2012 to 2014. A trial is set for Oct. 3 to determine how much the county must pay in damages, but settlement talks are also planned.

“The only evidence in the record is that the county’s employees took all unattended property and then immediately destroyed the property, regardless of whether the property was abandoned,” the judge wrote.

He declined to immediately rule on the merits of claims by two other campers, saying it wasn’t clear who took their property.

One hour’s notice

In March 2012, the Clark County Department of Corrections adopted a policy that work crews should clean up camps immediately if they’d been abandoned. If they hadn’t been abandoned, it said, the workers were to give one hour’s notice that the residents had to vacate the area and take their belongings with them.

In practice, the crews often didn’t determine whether the property had been abandoned. One crew supervisor testified in a deposition that if his workers complained that a campsite appeared to be recently occupied, he ordered them to clean up, anyway.

A lawyer for the county did not immediately return an email seeking comment Friday.

Some campers left to eat meals at a local shelter, then returned to find the work crews seizing their property and refusing to give it back. Among the items taken were dentures, a photograph of a deceased child, and legal documents such as Social Security cards and disability insurance papers.

A homeless resident, Terry Ellis, left a backpack at a bus stop while he offered to help a woman whose car had broken down nearby. Even though Ellis was within sight when the work crew arrived, the crew took it, ignoring his explanation for why he left it there, Ellis said in court filings.

Inside the backpack were new clothes he had been given so he could apply for a job, he said.

Another plaintiff and formerly homeless man, Adam Kravitz, had briefly left his bags by the Columbia River in 2012 and returned to find work crews taking them away. Kravitz and the group he was with asked the men to leave, but they were threatened with arrest, court documents show. Kravitz did not protest any further from there, he said.

Kravitz recently launched a nonprofit called Outsiders Inn to advocate for Clark County’s homeless community, and said it was incidents like these that spurred him to action. Friday’s ruling was “a big win,” he said.

“I’m very glad that they acknowledged that they were in the wrong,” he said. “I really hope, moving forward, that the policies can be strengthened and adhered to even better.”

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Unhoused Residents Association advocates on its own behalf

Group, which meets once a month, gives homeless a voice

AdamKravitz NatalieBehring TheColumbian

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

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There are neighborhood associations for most every area in Clark County, but what about people without an address?

The new Unhoused Residents Association looks to empower homeless people in Clark County by making them an officially recognized group that can advocate on its own behalf. In February, the association began holding monthly town hall meetings at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in west Vancouver.

Outsiders Inn, a homeless advocacy group, formed the association; meetings are facilitated by founder Adam Kravitz. He said he is a more effective advocate when he hears the most relevant, current concerns from people who are living on the streets.

“That’s why we do this. Everybody gets a voice, and everybody gets to be heard,” he said. “The magic of these meetings is bringing people together and the collaboration that’s going to happen.”

Kravitz is a new board member at Share, which operates shelters in Clark County, so he is able to offer institutional knowledge and relay what’s happening at the nonprofit organization to the Unhoused Residents Association members. Ren Autrey, also of Outsiders Inn, keeps minutes during the meetings.

Fliers for the association read: “No decisions about us, without us!”

Judi Bailey, neighborhoods program manager at the city of Vancouver, said neighborhood associations are geographically defined and are officially recognized by city ordinance. That means that those without an address cannot form a neighborhood association. The Unhoused Residents Association would be considered a sort of stakeholder group, she said, similar to Bike Clark County or the Clark County Rental Association.

“It’s more a group that’s connected by interest than geographical location,” Bailey said.

K.C. Vee, who lives out of his van with his wife, attended the group’s second meeting on March 10. The 40-year-old said he isn’t sure if politicians will listen to him about his concerns but they would be more apt to listen to a reputable organization, whether it’s Outsiders Inn or the Unhoused Residents Association. He is concerned about the negative perception of the homeless, he added.

“This isn’t just a bunch of people sitting around whining about being homeless,” Vee said. “We want to change our circumstance.”

Danny Hessick said he heard about the meetings at Friends of the Carpenter and a volunteer with the nonprofit group drove him to the meeting at St. Luke’s. The 47-year-old said he likes that the gatherings give him a chance to let other people know what he is feeling.

Also in attendance were representatives from agencies that assist the homeless, including 211Info, the Arnada Abbey, Hands of Favor and His Presents.

Seeking solutions

Many topics were covered at the two-hour meeting on March 10.

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Church in Washougal offers space for homeless

St. Anne’s Episcopal embraces Safe Car Camping Program

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

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WASHOUGAL — Cory Soderberg said he used to be awakened in the middle of the night by a tap on his window or a flashlight shining into his Dodge Caravan.

“I’ve been chased out of everything 20 times, and all the cops know me by name,” said Soderberg, who’s been living in his van for nine months.

Now, the 52-year-old sleeps soundly, knowing he won’t be bothered in the parking lot of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Washougal. He’s one of nine people staying in cars and small mobile shelters at the church through the Safe Car Camping Program, which is still in its infancy in Clark County. St. Anne’s is the only church in the county allowing people to park vehicles overnight, at least in this formal capacity, though program organizers aim to expand the program to other willing congregations.

“It gives me a peace of mind and a stability where I’m not looking over my shoulder. I sleep better, and I’m not constantly on the run,” Soderberg said, adding that it helps his dignity. “People don’t get that it’s really hard to play this part for me. It makes other people uncomfortable a lot, but it’s a lot harder for me than it is for you to watch me.”

The Rev. Jessie Smith began hosting people, including a family of seven, a few days before Christmas; she had been contemplating allowing car camping since attending a workshop in the fall. Religious assemblies are able to use their land to provide a safe space for the homeless regardless of land-use laws because it’s seen as part of their religious mission.

The only real cost to St. Anne’s is renting a port-a-potty, which costs less than $100 monthly, Smith said. Volunteers unlock the church to let people use the kitchen and bathroom between 5 and 7 p.m. Car campers have to be out by 9 a.m. to give the church full use of the parking lot during the day.

Adam Kravitz, founder of Outsiders Inn, a resource advocacy group in Vancouver, spoke to the congregation about the need for this program, and Smith explained how it tied into the Episcopal faith.

“We follow Jesus, who was hospitable to people across every boundary that he could find,” Smith said. “This one small thing we can do to show love across boundaries is to share the gifts that we do have, which is this space, this land, this building.”

The church property has trees that offer some privacy, and it has fields on two sides. Renters at the house next door, which is owned by the church, were OK with having cars and shelters nearby.

It won’t always be so private, though. The field to the west is the proposed site of a three-story apartment complex.

Still, the car-camping program is intended to be a temporary solution to the larger issue of the lack of shelter space and affordable housing in Clark County. Previously, Kravitz and other homeless advocates had rallied around a plan to secure church land where they could build a village of tiny houses. Originally, Safe Harbor Church of the Nazarene in Vancouver offered up its empty field but backed out after threat of a lawsuit. Although Kravitz is still interested in the village, finding appropriate property has been difficult, and the coldest months of winter when it was needed most have come and gone, he said.

“We wanted to make that happen a lot sooner,” he said.

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