Campers moving out of Centennial Square, dispersing to parks

As campers packed up around him in Centennial Square Monday morning, 58-year-old Mikko Lindroos showed a bylaw officer which bike he’d like to take with him. Lindroos fiddled with a black garbage bag as his girlfriend crouched inside their tent sorting between their belongings and items for the trash.

City of Victoria staff and bylaw officers spent the day loading items into city vehicles, helping campers move out of Centennial Square and into other parks around Victoria. One bylaw officer lifted a foosball table into the truck while a staff member used a stick to pick up garbage.

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People have until today to move their encampments.

At its height, there were up to 38 tents in Centennial Square.

“I’m heading to Crystal Pool,” said Lindroos, wearing a camouflage baseball cap over shaggy grey-blond curls. “They’re making us move out of here, but they’re helping us.”

Lindroos’s tent is scrawled with his name and phone number because he’s had tents thrown out in the past. The Salvation Army’s outreach vehicle has been coming to Centennial Square to provide meals to people, so Lindroos hopes the same service will be provided at Central Park.

Bylaw officers gave campers an information sheet that outlines where people who are homeless can shelter, including: Beacon Hill Park, Cecelia Ravine Park, Central Park next to Crystal Pool, Gonzales Park, Hollywood Park, Irving Park, MacDonald Park, Oaklands Park, Pemberton Park, Regatta Point Park, Stadacona Park and Victoria West Park.

Thomas Soulliere, the city’s director of parks, recreation and facilities, said bylaw officers are encouraging campers to go to parks other than Central Park and Beacon Hill Park, which are already congested. Soulliere said city staff and Victoria police will be keeping an eye on other parks to monitor any criminal activity.

Soulliere said the decision to move people from Centennial Square “was not taken lightly and will be implemented with compassion.”

A staff report on overnight sheltering released Monday does not recommend that city council reverse its May 21 decision to temporarily suspend enforcement of its camping bylaw, which requires people to pack up their tents and belongings every morning by 7.

Rather, the report recommends that the city prohibit camping in parks within 50 metres of a school, which would mean tents in Beacon Hill Park across from South Park School must be moved. The report noted that South Park School parents have raised concerns about property damage, human waste and hazardous debris that would post a risk to students and staff as they return to school.

If the report is adopted by council, camping would not be allowed in Summit Park and Moss Rock Park, which have environmentally sensitive areas. Camping would also be banned in MacDonald Park, South Park, Robert Porter Park and David Spencer Park, because they are the primary play spaces for local schools.

Centennial Square will also be off-limits because it’s a prominent urban plaza with pathways and infrastructure to support public events, the report said. Camping will not be allowed in community gardens.

The report, issued by city manager Jocelyn Jenkyns, recommends limiting the maximum size of a shelter to three metres square and requiring tents to be spaced four metres apart to prevent the spread of fire and to maintain physical distancing to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

It recommends councillors approve spending $165,000 to cover additional bylaw services for the rest of this year.

The expanded service would cost $491,000 annually. City councillors will discuss the report Thursday.

The staff report says the number of temporary shelters in Victoria parks and public spaces has more than doubled between June and August. “Unfortunately, suspending enforcement of prohibition on daytime sheltering has resulted in a number of adverse effects, such as enlargement and entrenchment of encampments, which increases the risks of fire and other health impacts to occupants,” the report said.

Soulliere said parks are not designed to be shelters and the best option is for people to shelter indoors. He said he’s concerned about the safety of the public, campers themselves and city workers, some of whom have been assaulted during their work.

Coun. Geoff Young said he’s concerned that by allowing people to camp 24/7 in other parks, the city will just disperse the homeless in parks throughout Victoria.

Young said he has started to receive emails from people who live around Central Park who are worried about the growing encampment there. “It’s a kids’ playground and obviously people are concerned.”

He’s heard from North Park residents who have had items disappear from their yards and porches, and those who have had interactions with campers who are hostile or erratic.

“We get reports of people behaving in ways that are distressing,” Young said. “They may be naked, they may be unconscious. There may be public defeca­tion and urination or people who are screaming, either without any apparent provocation or loud fights between people.”

Sean Kahil lives across from Central Park and said he has discouraged his 14-year-old daughter from visiting the park. As he walked through the park on Monday, he was threatened by a man who said he was going to “rip his head off.” He also witnessed two men fighting.

There are about 55 tents in Central Park, according to the North Park Neighbourhood Association, where Kahil serves as a board member. “There’s more and more people and it’s becoming more and more unsettled as time goes on,” he said.

>See CAMPING, A2

Young would like to see the city enforce its camping bylaw requiring people to pack up every morning by 7. Council voted to suspend enforcement of the bylaw during the pandemic to ensure people have a place to shelter.

On Aug. 27, after an emergency council meeting, Mayor Lisa Helps said the encampment in Centennial Square had become “untenable,” with problems ranging from drug-trafficking to violence.

Helps told the Times Colonist Monday that “moving people around isn’t solving the problem. We can’t continually just move people from park to park.” In order to truly address homelessness, the federal government needs to invest a significant amount of money into supportive housing and mental health and addiction support for people who need better health care, she said.

Helps dismissed the suggestion that Victoria’s decision not to enforce the camping bylaw has attracted people from elsewhere in B.C. “There are encampments in every major city across the country,” she said. “It has nothing to do with Victoria’s so-called generosity.”

People were forced onto the streets when emergency drop-in shelters limited their space to ensure physical distancing amid the pandemic, Helps said. At least 400 people have been placed in temporary supportive-housing facilities in former hotels, while approximately 275 are living outside.

Last week, Victoria police announced that 17 people were facing drug-trafficking charges in connection with a drug ring operating out of the tents in Centennial Square.

Police have also been called to two stabbings and multiple assaults in the square this month. A City Hall window was shot with an air soft gun.

Soulliere said once the campers have been relocated, the site will be cleaned and remediated and landscape restoration will take place. He did not have a figure for how much remediation will cost.

Camping in Beacon Hill Park has been a source of frustration for park users and neighbouring residents. A Go Fund Me campaign to raise money for a lawyer to sue the city has raised $12,000.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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