Editorial: Soiling the land and our community is a crime

Opinion: The difference between opinion-based content and news

ClarkCountyToday.com Editor Ken Vance reflects on the homeless encampment in Vancouver’s Arnold Park

I hope you’ve been following the reporting Clark County Today reporter Chris Brown has been doing on the homeless crisis here in Clark County. This week, Brown just completed a three-part series on the homeless camps that exist in Vancouver’s Arnold Park. I’ve included a link at the bottom of this column to the final story in the Arnold Park series, which includes links to the first two stories.

Previously, Brown opened the eyes of our readers to the problems surrounding the recently opened Day Center inside the Vancouver Navigation Center on Grand Boulevard. Those stories can also be found in our archives at ClarkCountyToday.com.

I’ve shared with you before, I can be naive at times. Like many of you, I can be consumed with my own life, often traveling on a beaten path with blinders on as to what is going on around me. When it comes to the homeless crisis, it’s only been in the last couple of years that I feel I have taken the time to gain some understanding as to the gravity of the situation here in Clark County.

Sure, I was aware that homelessness was a crisis in our country. I was even aware it has long been a serious issue in Portland. But, not in my precious, beloved Clark County. It couldn’t be.

I remember a few years ago, I took a random drive around Vancouver. I was shocked when I came by the temporary homeless encampment that had been established on the western edge of downtown Vancouver. It was created after city of Vancouver leaders stopped enforcing a camping ban. 

The encampment has since been cleaned up and the homeless individuals have been forced to move to other areas of town, including Arnold Park. The city’s efforts to clean up that area — close to downtown, the Vancouver waterfront and even a residential neighborhood —  appears to have led to many in the homeless community to opt to “live on the fringes,’’ a phrase used by the city’s first Homeless Resource Manager, Jackie St. Louis, in Brown’s final story of the Arnold Park series.

Brown reported that St. Louis recently made a trip into Arnold Park, along with other city and law enforcement personnel. His comments about what is going on there was the element of Brown’s series that resonated the most with me.

“I also think we have to be very clear about the fact that public health and public safety hazards are not something that we can allow to persist in community,” St. Louis told Brown, noting the hazardous human waste and trash accumulating in what is supposed to be a natural space. “And that has to be communicated to this population. There’s understanding that this is the way in which you decided to live, but we cannot by nature just allow for your sort of lifestyle to infringe upon the health and safety of other members of the community.”

I cannot agree more with St. Louis. I believe in the rights of individuals. If they want to “live on the fringes,’’ as St. Louis said, they have that right. And, let me be clear, many of those homeless individuals have made a conscious choice to live that way. I don’t want to sound callous or without empathy. My heart goes out to those who have lost their job, lost their home, and have no friends or family to turn to. But, there are some options for those members of our community that don’t include “living on the fringes.’’ That said, I’m sure there aren’t enough options, or more specifically solutions. But, they are there.

My closest encounter, on a personal level, with the homeless crisis in Clark County came with a friend who became a member of that underworld. He lost his job, home and eventually lost the patience of friends and family members who were trying to help him. He told me on one of the last occasions I saw him that he had essentially joined this community “on the fringes.’’ He had given up. He was comfortable with his decision and felt a part of that community.

Like I said, folks like my friend have the right to make that decision. But, they don’t have the right for that “lifestyle to infringe upon the health and safety of other members of the community,” as St. Louis told Brown. I believe it is a crime, not just in the literal sense, but it’s also a crime against humanity. I’m not suggesting our community would be better off if these folks were incarcerated, but as a society, we just can’t allow our community to turn into a place where we allow individuals to create these kinds of health and safety hazards. 

I’m not professing to have all the answers. I know the biggest issue is funds and that our city and county leaders are struggling to deal with the financial impact the homeless crisis has on taxpayers. But, we can’t stick our heads in the sand and allow situations like Arnold Park to exist. It’s going to cost us one way or another. The cost of cleanup is significant. We might as well spend the money to attempt to prevent the problem before it’s stench smacks us in the face instead of being forced to spend the money after our lands are littered and soiled. And, the cost to the quality of life is the greatest of all.

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