Council Members Bart Hansen and Sarah Fox surprised and saddened by what they witnessed
VANCOUVER — It started with just a few people, with a few parked cars.
Then more and more arrived. In the last month, traffic has increased.
Campsites went up and have not come down. Campers, with no wheels, have been placed in the parking lot.
It appears they are there for the long haul.
People started parking cars on the walking paths.
The problem spread from the parking lot, as well.
A homeowner woke up one morning to see that someone had pitched a tent in his neighbor’s yard.
A hundred yards down a trail, there are more tents. Some people are living there. Others have abandoned their spots, leaving behind used needles and piles of trash.
Leverich Park and its surrounding areas have become a serious problem.
Homeowners in the area are fed up.
Bart Hansen, a member of the Vancouver City Council, had more than 100 emails on the subject on Monday morning. He reached out to Council Member Sarah Fox, asking about the “safe park” at Leverich Park.
“My immediate reaction: There’s no safe park down at Leverich Park. That isn’t a safe park run by the city,” Fox said.
Hansen met with a group of homeowners on Wednesday. Fox did the same on Thursday. They toured the parking lot, the park, and the nearby trails.
They were both surprised and saddened by what they witnessed.
The homeowners were not exaggerating the situation.
“I’d call it a congregation of people who found a place to park. It’s not a Safe Park,” Fox said. “The city never sanctioned it. Now that we’re aware … I think we are pretty responsive. We are working to solve this. This is not a good situation at all for these neighbors whatsoever.”
Hansen said he met with Eric Holmes, the city manager, and other city leaders Thursday.
“I was very impressed with their response and their interest in addressing the situation,” Hansen said. “Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work on it.”
Antonio Buckley, one of the homeowners who spoke up, described Leverich Park as “an unwelcome, unsafe place.”
Strangers walk through their neighborhoods at all hours. Graffiti is on the rise. Vandalism, too. And harassing comments.
“We are kind of fed up, and we wanted to know how many other people were fed up. Me and my wife started knocking on doors. There are so many stories,” Buckley said.
“We are sympathetic to the needs of the homeless, but at the same time, homeowners had no clue what was going on. No one talked to us, and it’s a community park. It’s a bit concerning when we cannot use the park.”
(For more from Buckley, read his letter to the editor: https://www.clarkcountytoday.com/opinion/letter-we-are-all-concerned-about-what-is-going-on-in-leverich-park/)
It turns out there was no communication from the city to the homeowners because Leverich Park was never intended by the city to be used this way.
Fox is the city liaison to the emergency operations center and has been working closely with the center throughout the pandemic. The Vancouver Mall was used as a safe parking zone earlier in the pandemic. That zone has since been moved to the Evergreen Transit Center (1504 NE 138th Avenue). It is an organized site where people can live in their vehicles during the pandemic.
There are rules for those living in the zone. Fox said there have been a few minor incidents at the safe zone, but the zone is regulated.
That is not the case at Leverich Park, and it shows.
Because of the number of people using the park, homeowners just figured it was a designated spot chosen by the city.
“I know people need somewhere to live. I’m not a monster,” said one homeowner who did not want to be identified. “But I don’t know why they put it here.”
“I have a 19-month-old child,” another said. “I’m scared to wheel him through the park now.”
Some are calling it The Village at Leverich Park. It has attracted a lot of foot and vehicle traffic. Homeowners say they have seen an increase in speeding through the neighborhood, too.
So what now?
Fox said she could not promise the neighbors anything specific on Thursday, but she is confident that the city will work fast. She immediately talked to other city leaders. She said she expects a plan by Monday.
One of the first things that could happen, she said, is to make contact with those camping at the park, advising them of their options. It is unlikely that staying at Leverich Park will be an option, she said.
“I’m hoping that we do find a place for everybody to go, that we have space available at our shelters and our parking lots,” Fox said. “I’m hoping we can relocate everyone to other places that are safe and clean and help get them back on their feet again.”
If and when they are moved, Hansen said it will take a coordinated effort from many departments to clean the area.
On Wednesday, he asked if the homeowners would be able to help recruit volunteers.
One homeowner noted, though, that the camp has to be moved first. Cleaning up before the camp is moved will just mean having to clean it again.
Then there are the safety concerns. One of the major dumps of garbage off the Ellen Davis Trail is littered with hypodermic needles. Professionals need to work in those hazardous areas, Hansen noted.
Hansen and Fox met with homeowners this week, and both already made contact with others in the city.
“We’re definitely listening,” Fox said.
“I think we’ve got a good start and a good plan,” Hansen said.