Overnight homeless camping recommended to Vancouver Park Board
VANCOUVER -- One of the most controversial and persistent issues in Vancouver has entered a new phase after the Vancouver Park Board announced a special meeting to receive a new staff report suggesting bylaw changes to allow campers to put down stakes in parks overnight.
A report, authored by the board’s general manager, recommends "the Parks Control Bylaw be amended to allow people to erect temporary overnight shelter in a park when they have no other housing or shelter options."
"Our bylaws aren’t in line with the constitution and people’s right to shelter themselves from the elements when there’s no other alternative shelter,” explained park board commissioner John Irwin. "You couldn’t just say 'oh, I want to camp in the park for the weekend.' The plan is, as people aren’t able to shelter in shelters or, ideally, temporary modular housing at some point, they would have the right to shelter themselves overnight in a park."
Under the proposed changes, campers would be expected to pack up their tents by 8 a.m. and, if approved, washroom facilities and storage options would then be arranged by the board.
The report also recommends the designation of authorized parks for overnight camping, which would have to be 25 metres from schools and playgrounds, avoid sensitive environmental features, protect green spaces and support public use of fields, pools, and other amenities.
Dozens of homeless campers have set up tents in East Vancouver’s Strathcona Park in recent weeks after dozens were arrested under judicial authorization for refusing to leave an encampment parking lot owned by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority next to CRAB Park. Before that, they’d been forced from a long-term tent city at Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside under a ministerial order driven in large part by concerns the COVID-19 pandemic could spread like wildfire.
Nearby residents told CTV News they can no longer use Strathcona Park's running track, children's playground and other features as more campers arrive each day.
"I personally don’t feel the housing and social crisis we have in the city should be solved in public park areas," said Elana Zysblat. “It’s not an acceptable or sustainable or healthy solution for anyone.”
Irwin hopes to harness public frustration to get more resources on the problem.
“My hope is if people don’t like it, they will pressure the federal, provincial and the city government to provide more temporary modular housing and more public housing,” he said.
Another resident was cautiously in favour of the idea, but wanted a lot more details.
“I’m in total support of this bylaw change if the number of tents will be limited to maybe a number of five and then my question would be who makes sure the tents are really gone in the mornings?" said nearby resident Sandra Rohler. "They already say there’s a big strain on park rangers.”
Irwin acknowledged enforcement is an outstanding issue. Vancouver police didn't respond to our request for comment when asked if they'd been consulted and what role they might play.
The minister overseeing the very difficult task of housing the homeless is urging patience, reminding people that building long-term housing takes years and even modular housing, which can be constructed in months, requires more than just four walls and a bed.
"Housing is important but it is the wrap-around services — the meals, the cleaning, mental health and addiction services, overdose protection services that make that housing work,” said minister of social development, Shane Simpson, explaining that those services are in short supply with more than 200 people housed from Oppenheimer Park and other sites.
"We are looking at and making other (hotel) acquisitions. Part of the reality is, we are going to need additional support here and the federal government needs to step up with capital investments and we’re having those discussions now,” he said, adding that few hotels are available for sale at the moment. "If we need to take action, we need to do it right. The last thing we want to do is go in and misstep and get it wrong so it is about some patience as we look at what the options are and bring the partners together.”
The report notes that the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation has a duty to all park users, including those who are experiencing homelessness, which it describes as a crisis.
It also includes a chart showing there’s been a 625 per cent increase in ranger calls since 2015, a rate that’s surged in lockstep with the growth in the number of temporary structures in parks.
"When temporary structures erected as shelters remain in parks for extended periods of time, particularly if in concentrated numbers, the resulting encampments can impede community use of much needed public green spaces; result in the accumulation of debris and human waste; and create opportunities for increased violence and health risks,” says the report.
While the park board was reluctant to remove campers from Oppenheimer Park, the province announced that the need to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission was of vital importance, so government bought hotels to house 261 people. Others were offered housing at social housing facilities. Not everyone has accepted the accommodations offered.
The report to park board commissioners also emphasizes that "Although the Parks Control Bylaw does not permit people to remain in parks overnight, or to erect temporary structures, these bylaws have not been enforced as the BC Supreme Court ruled that any bylaws prohibiting homeless people from erecting temporary shelters and sleeping in city parks would be a Charter right violation given the lack of adequate shelter capacity for individuals experiencing homelessness.“
Commissioners will hear a staff presentation and debate the report at a special meeting on July 13 at 6 p.m. and speakers from various community groups, organizations and businesses are already registering to speak to the board.
Irwin is asking people to keep an open mind.
“I think we’re at a point where we have to go, ‘ok, do we look after people, do we look after our homeless residents or do we just keep shoving them around as we’ve been doing from park to park?’” he said, adding that if the bylaw is passed it will take some time to craft the wording.
"This is a bylaw and once we put in place we don’t want to have to suffer another legal challenge or try to change it in a year. We want it to be in place for a long time.”