Two non-profits in Vancouver that serve the homeless had been letting about a half dozen people who struggled to get housing stay in the parking lot they shared. But now the organizations are telling them they can’t stay any longer. The homeless people will be evicted on September 2.
“Where are we going to park? We have nowhere to go,” Amanda Snapp, one of the people who has been living in the lot, told The Columbian. “This place is safe. Where can we go?”
Last week, police responded to a complaint from a neighbor and “reminded” the groups that Vancouver has a no-camping ordinance that applies to parks, streets, and other public property. While the lot is private property, letting people live in it could be a nuisance code violation if property is being stored on it or there are other problems. Amy Reynolds, program manager of Share, one of the non-profits, told The Columbian that this is what the group is responding to: “We believe in being good neighbors. As an organization, we do not advocate for nor are we trying to create a ‘tent city.’ We believe in permanent housing as a reasonable and possible solution.”
The group has said that it’s also trying to find housing for those who had been living in the lot, but it may be nearly impossible to do in time. The housing vacancy rate in the city is about 3 percent, and even if a homeless person can get a subsidy, many landlords prefer to rent to someone else. Of 498 people who qualified for vouchers, just 56 percent found someone willing to rent to them.
Many people don’t even want to offer help to the homeless. But those who do are finding that they are increasingly banned from doing so. A church in Rockford, Illinois was told in the middle of freezing temperatures by its city that it couldn’t give the homeless shelter and a temporary place to warm up because it didn’t have a permit. The troubles often come from concerned neighbors: a proposed homeless shelter in Olympia, Washington hasn’t been able to find a place to set up shop because nearby residents kept protesting.
It can be even harder to simply try to give the homeless meals. A couple who fed the homeless in Daytona Beach, Florida every week were hit with a $746 fine for doing so. A pastor in Oneonta, Alabama was blocked from feeding the homeless because he didn’t have a permit, which costs $500. Columbia, South Carolina has begun strictly enforcing an old ordinance requiring a permit for groups to congregate in public parks, essentially stopping groups that had been feeding the homeless. Church volunteers in Pennsylvania were barred from handing food out to the homeless in a public parking lot. Other examples have cropped up in Missouri, North Carolina, and Orlando; as of 2010, more than a dozen cities had enacted restrictions and they are on the rise.
This trend comes alongside the increasing criminalization of homelessness in general. A report in July found an increase in nearly every type of ordinance aimed at the homeless, such as making it illegal to sit or lie down on sidewalks, to sleep in public or in a car, or to beg for money. But none of these laws get at the root causes of homelessness, which are first and foremost a lack of resources and housing.
And rather than outlawing the homeless, giving them shelter saves much more money. When the costs of criminalization and hospitalization are weighed against the costs of housing, it is three times more expensive to leave the homeless on the street than to help them find a place to live. One Florida county spent more than $5 million over a decade to jail just 37 homeless people. But one apartment complex for the homeless in Charlotte, North Carolina saved $1.8 million in its first year alone.