City wants to ban boulevard camping, end Pandora Avenue tent city

The days could be numbered for the makeshift tent city outside the Our Place drop-in centre on Pandora Avenue.

Citing public safety concerns, city staff are recommending city council amend its streets and traffic bylaw to prohibit camping on city road allowances — in particular on boulevards and medians. In addition, the amendment would prohibit occupation of medians between sunset and sunrise the next day.

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It's a move some residents, especially those near the 900-block of Pandora Avenue where between 20 and 60 campers regularly can be found, say is long overdue — however others argue the move will only displace the problem to another part of the city.

In the past two years, since the drop-in centre opened and the B.C. Supreme Court struck down a city prohibition on camping in city parks, the 900-block of the street has become a focal point for drug dealing, homeless camping and prostitution.

Police calls to the area have skyrocketed and neighbours consistently complain of people blocking sidewalks with their shopping carts, drinking and using drugs, and defecating and urinating on neighbouring properties.

And increasingly, the boulevard campers are becoming a hazard, according to the city staff report that will be considered by councillors on Thursday.

The report says camping on medians — even those as large as on Pandora or on the Johnson Street bridgehead — is unsafe due to their proximity to traffic. And it notes that notwithstanding the 2008 court ruling, and the city's subsequent bylaw allowing camping in parks between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., the city can regulate the use of its public spaces.

"A number of serious accidents and near accidents involving pedestrians leaving the median have been reported. Camping and placement of structures or objects in the medians is potentially very distracting to drivers creating safety hazard even without pedestrians entering roadways," the report says.

To try to deal with the growing camping problem, the city opened 85 extra emergency shelter beds this summer, but the beds remain only half full, Mayor Dean Fortin said Monday.

"These are low-barrier shelters where people can take dogs and carts but they are just not being used. It's also come to our attention that some of the people camping on the boulevard actually are housed — they have their own housing but are choosing to camp out there," Fortin said.

He said the city will work with provincial agencies, the Victoria Coalition to end Homelessness, and the Vancouver Island Health Authority to ensure there is a shelter option for every person now camping on Pandora.

But Tamara Herman, of the Victoria Harm Reduction Resource Centre Society, argues changing the bylaw to prevent people from camping on the street's boulevard won't solve the problems of homelessness and drug addiction.

"It's just another attempt by the City of Victoria to criminalize homeless people and to avoid actually doing work on the real issues — the fundamental issues," she said. "What's it going to do? It's going to displace the people who are currently camping on the Pandora boulevard to another area of town where the same problem is going to come up again."

However, a certain amount of displacement is exactly what's needed on Pandora right now, argued Robert Randall, chairman of the Downtown Residents Association.

"It will scatter some of the elements that are using that median," Randall said. "We were talking this morning that it's getting to be more than just campers. It's turned into the drug supermarket of the region and all sorts of things that are just not compatible with social calm and order."

If the bylaw amendment passes, the city would have to set fines for violation. City director of legislative services Rob Woodland said the fine would probably be in the range of $100 to $200.

Victoria police Insp. Jamie Pearce did not anticipate any problem with enforcement.

"Obviously we would want to garner compliance by just speaking to the individuals," he said. "When there's a new bylaw in place we educate people about the bylaw. We don't just walk up and give them a ticket. We'll educate them about the bylaw and give them a warning."

Meanwhile, also on Thursday, councillors will discuss giving Our Place a further $20,000 in funding so it can continue to open early morning hours (between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m.) through the winter.

bcleverley@tc.canwest.com

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