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Free camping in city parks a dilemma for Victoria

Victoria will have to develop a strategy to stem the growing trend of city parks being used as free campgrounds, some councillors say.
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About a dozen people were camping in Kings Park on Caledonia Avenue in Victoria's Fernwood neighbourhood during the summer.

Victoria will have to develop a strategy to stem the growing trend of city parks being used as free campgrounds, some councillors say.

Victoria Police Chief Frank Elsner, whose members patrol parks with bylaw officers to rouse tenters in the mornings, has told councillors the number of people camping in parks who are not homeless is increasing. “There seems to be a real mix now of people that are truly homeless and people that are using our parks as free campgrounds.”

Coun. Shellie Gudgeon said the city must take leadership on the issue. “Human beings need boundaries and I think those boundaries have been blurred for the past 10 years, maybe 20 years. I think we’ve seen the problems that result when it’s unchecked.”

Dealing with the issue won’t be easy, especially in light of a 2009 B.C. Supreme Court ruling that said, in the absence of shelter beds, it’s unconstitutional to deny a person the right to pitch a tent in a park. Guidelines generally permit tents and shelters such as tarps from dusk to dawn.

Coun. Pam Madoff, who lives near Beacon Hill Park, said there are two issues: the homeless, who have no other option, and recreational campers.

“The number of folks I’m seeing who are on the road as a summer activity … is quite significant. I think the other numbers pale somewhat in comparison, as well. … How do we separate [the two]? We don’t suddenly start doing means tests to see who’s really homeless.”

Gudgeon said she has received complaints from families about people camping in and around playgrounds.

“Parks are a shared public place, and when any particular group encroaches on the other … it’s problematic.”

Recent counts show at least 50 to 60 people sleeping in public spaces are regularly being woken by officials, Gudgeon said.

“We need data and information [to determine] what we do need. Do we need an urban campground in the City of Victoria? Do we need bus shuttles at night to a campground outside of Victoria?” she said.

“There’s a tremendous amount of backpackers, European backpackers or international backpackers, who are using our parks as de facto campgrounds. I don’t think that’s what the Supreme Court ruling was meant for.”

Coun. Ben Isitt believes one way to tackle the problem would be to specify a couple of larger parks — such as Beacon Hill Park or Topaz Park — where tenting is allowed.

He admits it would be a tough sell. “No one wants to have this discussion because then we start pitting neighbourhood against neighbourhood. But the outcome [of doing nothing] has been that every park in our city ends up a de facto campground, and that’s not serving anyone well.”

Isitt said he’s not overly concerned about casual camping by travellers.

“If there’s some young people who passed through Victoria this summer and decided they wanted to spend a couple of days in the city and set up a tent in Beacon Hill Park, who do they really harm?” he said.

“The big issue is people who have nowhere else to sleep, so they’re turning to parks, which don’t have adequate sanitation facilities and they don’t have a clean water supply. It’s just this cat-and-mouse game of being rustled out of their shelter every morning at 7 a.m.

“It’s not working for the people who are homeless and it’s not working for the people who live right next to the parks.”

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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