VPD Officers have become a more visible presence in and around the center following neighborhood complaints of crime
Editor’s note: This is Part Two of our ongoing series regarding the Homeless Navigation Center near Fourth Plain and Grand.
VANCOUVER — In the parking lot of the Homeless Navigation Center at 2018 Grand Boulevard, a Vancouver Police Department (VPD) patrol car circles slowly. Other cruisers frequently drive by on the street in front of the day center run by Share, as dozens of local homeless file in and out of the building or stand along the sidewalk outside.
The increased visibility of Vancouver Police is not an accident. It’s a direct response to people in the neighborhood who have been highly vocal about what they see as a sharp increase in vagrancy and criminal activity since the shelter opened last November.
“Within the last couple of weeks, we diverted some resources to that area for the purpose of trying to keep the criminal activity on the outside of the navigation center to a minimum or eliminated altogether,” says Assistant Police Chief Troy Price. “It was focused on some of the things that were being complained of by the neighborhood residents.”
Those things included drug activity, vandalism, property crimes, camping on public and private property, human waste, used needles, and much more.
“Some businesses have seen an increase of 300 percent in shoplifting,” local resident James Dougherty told ClarkCountyToday.com last month. “Others have seen a drop of over 80 percent of their business.”
Those numbers, of course, are highly subjective. Price says they have a crime analyst with Vancouver Police digging deeper into the statistics to determine if there really has been a crime increase that could be connected to the Navigation Center and, if so, how much. “And that way we can meaningfully come to the table and meet with the area residents at the navigation center and say, ‘Okay, here’s what the numbers bear out.’”
Price says he’s hopeful they can have official numbers to share at the next Good Neighbor meeting the final Wednesday in June.
But neighbors, who have formed a private Facebook group now over 400 members strong to share what they see in the area, haven’t been sitting still. They claim their own consultation with a VPD crime analyst resulted in some recommendations. Among those, they said the analyst called the open covered area outside the Day Center an “open air drug market.”
“Open air drug market? A phrase like that is a little concerning, because I think it presents an image that’s different from the reality,” Price says. “Are people conducting drug sales in that area? I would guess they are. That happens all over our city. Parking lots of businesses, and parks. Those are the places that people normally conduct drug sales when they’re not inside of a private residence.”
A check of the department’s Community Crime Map would seem to show a marked increase in criminal incidents within half a mile of the Navigation Center. For the period of January 1 through May 14 there were an average of 21 incidents investigated by police from 2015 through 2018 (2017 was the outlier with 33 events, due to a rash of vehicle thefts). For 2019, the number was 42 incidents. But, Price warns, the data can be misleading because variables like weather over that period can play a significant role in criminal activity.
“I will say this, that the residents in the area are certainly aware of the activity going on around there,” says Price.
And they have been vocal on social media, at Neighborhood Association meetings, and at the monthly Good Neighbor meetings held inside the shelter. Price says their complaints are not falling on deaf ears.
“I think it has guided us and some of our activity in that area, because we want to address those concerns,” he says. “We certainly don’t want any type of particular criminal behavior to get a foothold. And so when we can act in a in a responsive way that addresses the problems that we are seeing it enables us to address crime smarter, and actually increase the livability in the area.”
At the Good Neighbor meeting in May, VPD Lieutenant Mike Knott was the only speaker to garner a round of applause from the audience, indicating the increased presence of officers in the area has not gone unnoticed.
“We are in this with them,” says Price. “And we are going to continue to push, and push, and push until we’ve come to some meaningful solution that has long lasting impacts.”
One effort currently underway is to add a crosswalk across Grand Boulevard between the Navigation Center and the WalMart Marketplace across the street. Between that and increased enforcement of jaywalking laws, Price says they’ve seen a decrease in complaints from drivers.
The decision to move the day center from its temporary location at the Friends of the Carpenter warehouse in downtown Vancouver to the former Department of Fish and Wildlife building at 2018 Grand Boulevard met with plenty of resistance even before it happened. On a board at the Good Neighbor meeting last week, where residents could write their ideas on how to make things better, one sentence stood out: “Close the center!”
That’s very unlikely to happen, but it’s clear that people involved in the process understand that things need to change.
“One of the key issues is, this thing hasn’t fully developed yet,” Price says. “And, so these are the growing pains into the day center, and the actual navigation center itself becoming fully functional.”
Ultimately, the city hopes to introduce new services to the remaining 60,000 square feet or so of vacant space remaining in the Navigation Center building. Those could include a 24-hour shelter for women and families, drug treatment on site, a health clinic, and more. The city is currently seeking out opportunities.
Already, there have been changes. One Share worker inside the Day Center said the first month was “wild” due to a lack of any security. Now, two security officers contracted by the city are on site from opening to closing every day. Since then, things have been more peaceful according to people at the shelter. Police officers drive by the street outside frequently, and even come inside the shelter to mingle with the homeless, getting to know them and making their presence felt on as non-threatening a level as possible. It’s a proactive approach that people inside the shelter say has made a big difference. Price says complaints from the neighbors have also decreased in recent weeks.
“We don’t want people to get frustrated and give up, and not report, that’s for certain,” he says. “And we said this at the meetings, and I will continue to say this, we have finite resources. And, you know, a person committing some minor infraction in an alley is not going to take precedence over an in-progress, violent crime somewhere else in the city.”
Recent data makes it clear that homelessness is not just a concern in downtown Vancouver, or in the central area near the Navigation Center. It’s all over Clark County and, indeed, the region.
With departmental resources stretched thin, Price admits that it’s sometimes a struggle to handle the growing crisis. But, he also says that outside resources are increasingly coming online, and those partnerships will be invaluable as police departments see a major shift to newer officers.
“One of the things that these newer officers are going to have, that I certainly didn’t have when starting out, is the partnerships with the other stakeholders in this and being able to not just do what the police mission is, but assist in empowering our community partners in completing their mission,” says Price.
Neighbors, meanwhile, worry planners put the cart before the horse in their haste to move as much of the homeless population out of downtown Vancouver ahead of the first Spring and Summer for the new Waterfront Park.
“I think that they are falling short of saving lives here,” says Laura Lindeman, who lives nearby, “and they’ve put more people in danger; the community and the people that they are supposed to be helping.”
Price isn’t inclined to comment on that, but he does want the community to know that people are listening and work is being done to improve things.
“Please continue to report and be engaged,” he tells the neighbors. “Please continue to attend the meetings at the navigation center and to make those concerns known.
It’s a good bet that they will.
In part three of our series, ClarkCountyToday.com will take you behind the scenes of the day center operated by Share inside the Navigation Center, and hear from the men and women who come there nearly every day.