As Vancouver plans to sanction tenting for first time, metropolis grapples with ‘complicated’ authorized questions


An initial plan in Vancouver to sanction campsites for people without protection is taking shape, as are some logistical hurdles.

Vancouver City Council heard an update from staff on Monday about difficulties in finding the best candidates to oversee the campsite. The staff also outlined possible changes to local laws that could lead them into lesser known legal territory.

“Frankly, this is single-handedly the most complex legal issue I have ever faced,” City Attorney Jonathan Young told OPB.

The city councils did not take any political decisions on Monday evening. Another meeting to discuss the campsites is planned for August 2nd.

Vancouver announced its plans to sanction a campground on May 24 to better serve people who are currently not housed. The hope is that it will facilitate efforts to help people stay healthy, receive treatments for various problems, and find housing.

The city has set itself the goal of opening at least one campsite in September that could serve between 20 and 40 people. Employees also said they were hoping to open three sites in December. On Monday, it remained unclear where the campsites would go.

Jamie Spinelli, Vancouver’s homeless assistance coordinator, has postponed a two-week deadline to find an organization to run the camps. Cara Rene, a spokeswoman for the city, told OPB that the providers “are saturated with work and have difficulty hiring and having enough staff”.

Spinelli also pointed out the tight six-week window to the city officials on Monday evening: “The processing time that we originally stated was pretty quick.”

The decision of where to place the campsites will ultimately be a decision of the city councils. Young said staff will be showcasing places that weigh different factors and be careful not to move campsites into areas with higher poverty rates.

“We want … to make sure we don’t burden parts of our city that are already economically troubled,” said Young.

It is likely that Vancouver will have to rewrite some laws to make the sites a reality. It is currently illegal to camp on public grounds in Vancouver from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. without a permit, and all permits are limited to two weeks.

To enable the long-term 24/7 campsites, the city may need to change its camping ordinance or make zoning changes, Young noted.

At the same time, Young said the city could try to keep other areas completely closed to camping. It is unclear where. Young noted that the city is concerned about litter near waterways, such as a path near Burnt Bridge Creek.

The idea flirts with the famous judgment of Martin v. Boise from 2018 when the U.S. 9th appeals court ruled cities can’t prosecute people for sleeping on the street if they have nowhere else to go.

“We are definitely coordinating our steps very closely to make sure we are aligning with the 9th Circuit precedent,” Young told OPB. “I am not aware of any jurisdiction that has done exactly as we propose.”

City councils suggested that some of the campsites be reserved for specific groups – such as women and children. But Young says this idea could also be legally tested.

He told councilors that the idea could potentially run into “constitutional limits”.