An encampment at the Vancouver Mall parking lot designed for people living out of their vehicles is shutting down, effective today.
The safe-park program started April 2, just as resources for people without homes were shuttering across the state in response to the stay-at-home order meant to slow the spread of COVID-19. It provided a safe, free and legal place for people living in their cars or campers to shelter-in-place.
As of Tuesday, the parking lot was a home base to about 60 people living in 40 vehicles, said Dave Perlick, recreation manager for the Vancouver Parks and Recreation department. They found out about the impending closure Tuesday morning.
“The model of service is working well and we hope to find a new site quickly,” Perlick said in a media release.
The closure decision came from Centennial Real Estate, the company that owns and operates the mall. Centennial had allowed the safe-park program to use the southwest corner of the complex’s parking lot while the stores remained closed.
As Washington looks toward the first phase of reopening businesses, leaders at the mall decided it was time to terminate the agreement. They’re looking at the possibility of stores providing curbside pickup to customers, according to the press release, and thus needed the space in the parking lot.
“We are grateful to Centennial Real Estate and the Vancouver Mall for their partnership in opening and operating the Safe Parking Zone,” Perlick said.
Staffers from the city’s Parks and Recreation program, which oversees the zone, were at the site Tuesday trucking away ropes and signs urging people living at the encampment to adhere to social distancing protocol.
Shutting down the program will also require the removal of portable toilets and hand-washing stations, installed at the site in early April.
Perlick, managing the tear down on Tuesday morning, said that the city hasn’t identified a location where the safe-park program might be able to continue. He’s optimistic that they’ll be able to find one, he added, but it will take some time. The people who had come to count on a safe place to park will experience an inevitable disruption.
One such person is Scott Irvin, who said he’s been living at the Vancouver Mall site in his camper with his terrier mix, Meechie, since the encampment opened. He’s lived in his camper for about three years.
Irvin said the closure means he’ll go back on the street, driving around Hazel Dell and trying to avoid getting a parking ticket. He added that it was nice to get a break from worrying about hearing the knock on his door from law enforcement that meant he’d have to move on.
In the meantime, Irvin said he is doing his best to stay healthy. He has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, he added, and he’s almost 60.
“If I get it, I’m dead,” Irvin said.
Another person using the parking lot Tuesday was Tim Haynes, who had just dropped by to fix a tail light on his new (to him) 1973 Apache pop-up trailer.
Haynes had been in the middle of moving from Bellingham to Oregon when the coronavirus hit, he said. He’d accepted a job with a distributing company, secured an apartment, and was en route when both arrangements fell through.
“I was so stoked, you know? Had a place, an apartment ready to move to,” Haynes said. “Then the pandemic happened. Job’s on hold, frozen, and so is the apartment.”
He had been living in hotels ever since, an arrangement he said cost him about $5,000 over the last several weeks. He just got the run-down trailer, gifted to him randomly by a stranger trying to get rid of it — the universe was finally throwing a bit of good fortune his way, Haynes said.
Now, he’s not sure what he’s going to do with the thing.
“It’s a project of mine, but I don’t have a place to put it.”
Navigation Center services
The safe-park zone was an attempt to temporarily replace some city homelessness services impacted by the coronavirus, including the Navigation Center, which closed on March 19.
Although the day center provided some public health benefits — restrooms, hand-washing stations, and laundry facilities — city leaders calculated that the risk of gathering, on average, 160 people per day into a single room outweighed the advantages.
Now, the center located at 2018 Grand Boulevard is operating at an extremely limited capacity. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the covered patio area opens between 10 a.m. and noon for people to pick up their mail. Portable toilets have been set up in the parking lot.
Jim, a 64-year-old Vancouver resident who asked that his last name be withheld, came by the Navigation Center Tuesday morning to check for mail and use the restroom. He’s spending nights at a friend’s house right now, he said, and days at public parks trying to keep a safe distance from other people. He’s looking for a permanent living situation, he said, but searching for an apartment — and the roommate he’d need to afford one — is a tall order during a pandemic.
“Everything’s closed up, and people don’t want to meet up with other people, for obvious reasons,” Jim said.