WOODLAND — A small community like Woodland isn’t a great place to be homeless, city officials acknowledge. But even though the city lacks services, those officials want to establish some rules.
Two drafted ordinances that recently came before the Woodland City Council would limit when and where people can camp in the city, and crack down on panhandling. Both ordinances were pulled from the July 15 agenda and are expected to come back at the council’s Aug. 19 meeting after getting a second look from the city attorney. Similar ordinances elsewhere have run into legal issues.
Vancouver attorney Moloy Good, who helped bring a lawsuit against Clark County for throwing away homeless people’s belongings, finds these types of ordinances “problematic at a minimum.”
“I think at the end of the day they don’t want homeless people to be visible,” he said.
Woodland Mayor Will Finn said the ordinances are meant not to kick people out of Woodland or get them into legal trouble, but to point them in the direction of help.
“For a small city like Woodland, we don’t have a lot of resources available. We don’t have the resources of a Vancouver or Longview,” he said.
Vancouver and Longview are the cities closest to Woodland with homeless shelters, which could soon factor into the legality of camping in Woodland.
“I would advise everybody to take a little step back and look at some of the case law that’s already happened before creating an ordinance that criminalizes a basic human right of sleep,” DeeAnna Holland, board president of Woodland Action Center, told the city council at the July 15 meeting.
She told the council there recently were 111 people in Woodland without permanent housing — living in cars, tents, RVs without running water or couch surfing. Most of Woodland lies within Cowlitz County, where a January homeless census counted 468 homeless people including 219 without any shelter. Woodland has about 6,300 residents, and about 2,000 people from Clark and Cowlitz counties visit the food bank at Woodland Action Center every month. The center also operates a thrift store, job resource room and gives out tents, tarps, sleeping bags and socks from its emergency supply room.
Holland is confused as to why the council is coming down on those who camp in the city because the emergency supply room was founded with a $6,000 grant from the city a few years back. The room is still funded through various grants.
Regulating camping is an issue all around Western Washington. The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington sent a letter in April to the Washington State Association of Municipal Attorneys questioning the constitutionality of panhandling and camping ordinances.
“Leaving unconstitutional ordinances on the books causes significant harm, particularly when the ordinances trigger the criminal process including arrest, conviction, and incarceration. Unconstitutional ordinances also risk lawsuits that are expensive to defend and risk incurring liability and attorneys’ fee,” the letter says.
In the well-known Martin v. City of Boise case, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the Idaho city’s anti-camping ordinance was unconstitutional because it criminally penalized homeless people for sitting, sleeping or lying outside on public property when there was no available shelter.
“Washington courts have also struck down anti-camping or anti-sleeping ordinances, since they effectively deny homeless people the right to engage in activities essential to human survival (shelter, sleep),” the letter says. “Cities and counties across the state have announced suspensions of their anti-camping ordinances in light of Martin.”
The letter also notes that “panhandling is constitutionally protected speech and restrictions on it are subject to strict scrutiny.” It goes on to say that restricting the time or places people can panhandle or restrictions purporting to limit “coercion” are unconstitutional.
There is similar language in the July 15 draft of Woodland’s panhandling ordinance. It would regulate and punish acts of “coercive and aggressive solicitation” that occur at locations which create “an enhanced sense of fear or intimidation” or “pose a risk to traffic and public safety.”
With the panhandling ordinance, Good, the Vancouver attorney, sees potential conflict with other types of coercive solicitation, such as people waving political signs or even kids advertising a car wash fundraiser.
“It feels like they did not really think it through what the consequences would be,” he said.
The camping ordinance makes it illegal to camp, occupy camp facilities or use camping equipment between 6:30 a.m. and 10 p.m. Woodland would join Vancouver and Washougal in adopting ordinances that dictate when and where people can camp. However, Woodland’s ordinance has a provision that the others do not: It says law enforcement officers shall not enforce the prohibition “when there is no available overnight shelter.”
Good said this addition helps the ordinance track with Martin v. City of Boise, but questions how they would determine shelter availability in a city that doesn’t have any.
Kate Budd, executive director of Vancouver-based Council for the Homeless, says Woodland’s approach adds a level of complication. Last year, Clark County could only meet 40 percent of requests for shelter.
“It’s not realistic that those in Woodland would be sheltered in Clark County,” she said, adding that the policy makes formerly housed community members feel they’re no longer welcome.
“There’s not enough space for everybody,” Holland said. “Why even waste the paper on printing this ordinance?”
The camping ordinance also establishes a system where people could get camping permits so long as there are adequate sanitary facilities, trash receptacles and collection, and the camp does not “unreasonably disturb or interfere with the safety, peace, comfort and repose of private property owners.”
That sends the message that the city is OK with some types of camping, Good said.
The ordinances came out of the city’s public safety committee, which meets regularly with Woodland Police Chief Jim Kelly. He said his officers regularly interact with the city’s homeless population, and the ordinances were drawn up for the safety of Woodland residents, housed or not.
“We want to make sure we get it right so we’re not hurting anybody by changing existing ordinances,” he said.
That’s why the ordinances were pulled from the July agenda. The committee plans to meet with the city attorney this week to go over the ordinances again before they come back to council.
“We’re not telling them they can’t camp,” Kelly said. “We’re fully aware of some of the cases that have gone on, especially in the Pacific Northwest.”
Woodland Sgt. Robb Lipp said there are two groups of homeless people living around Woodland: Long-term residents and those passing through. Regardless of why they’re in Woodland, Lipp said police try to help connect people in need with services. He said they provide crisis cards with information on agencies that can help, and sometimes give rides to nearby shelters or hospitals.
“We don’t look for arrests out of these types of contacts,” Kelly said. “(Officers) don’t look to make an arrest when they contact these folks. They do everything they can to point these individuals in the direction of the services they need.”
That can be difficult for the homeless population in Woodland or nearby. Holland said she and a crew primarily made up of Woodland Action volunteers take their role in the community seriously, as they’re one of the few agencies in that part of Clark and Cowlitz counties providing services.
“The people who come in, they are humble,” said Effie Arensmeier, a volunteer with Woodland Action Center. “It is such a privilege being able to help them.”
Arensmeier puts together boxes of emergency supplies for homeless people, such as clothing, hygiene items and ready-to-eat foods. They can get a new tent and tarp every six months.
She said most of the homeless people she works with have some connection to the area. In the summer, Arensmeier estimates, 45 to 50 homeless people come to the center with more people visiting in the winter. Tanya Rocha, operations lead at Woodland Action, estimated that the emergency supply room serves close to 55 to 60 in the winter.
Rocha said that as word about the ordinances has gotten out, she’s heard from clients who are worried about what will happen to them if they are discovered camping. Rocha fears some might even stop coming in for services.
“They’re not these nameless, faceless people,” Holland said. “It’s people with a whole lot of education. It’s people who have grown up in Woodland their whole lives. Our hardest-working volunteers are also clients.
“I will fight with the city on this one forever.”