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Topaz Park suggested as location for homeless tent city

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps never thought she would ever be planning to set up a tent city in a city park.
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A needle depository hangs on a fence around tennis courts at Topaz Park. The park, Victoria's second largest, has been proposed as the site of a tent city for homeless people.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps never thought she would ever be planning to set up a tent city in a city park.

But in an effort to both rein in unregulated camping in city parks and help homeless people find more permanent shelter, that’s exactly what’s in the works.

“This is the 21st century and we’re in a First World country. Something is not working if a city government is having to say, ‘Oh, where are we going to put our temporary tent city?’ ” Helps said.

“Something is fundamentally wrong with this country if we’re having this conversation at the local level.”

City staff have identified Topaz Park, the city’s second-largest park after Beacon Hill, as the most likely site for a temporary designated tenting area. While still in its early stages, the plan is to see the city contract with a service provider to manage the site.

The hope is to have the designated area up and running by October, if not sooner. People would be able to leave their tents up, rather than having to pack up their belongings each morning, as is required now.

The city has been wrestling with what to do with tenting in parks since a 2009 B.C. Supreme Court ruling said that, in the absence of shelter beds, it’s unconstitutional to deny a person the right to pitch a tent in a park. The city has since amended its bylaws to allow people to pitch tents in parks from dusk to dawn.

City officials estimate several hundred people now routinely stay overnight in city parks and green spaces, leading to complaints of noise and nuisance, as well as the destruction of ecosystems and accumulation of mounds of trash that have to be hauled away. The annual cost is estimated at more than $600,000, including police, bylaw and parks staff time.

Coun. Geoff Young said he’s surprised council has decided to pursue the idea of a designated tenting area given its experience with de facto tent cities in Cridge Park in 2005 and at Centennial Square beside Victoria City Hall in 2011. In both instances, the camps presented fire risks from light sources and camp stoves, were a magnet for drug dealing and prostitution, and brought an increase in crimes, such as car break-ins, to the neighbourhood.

“[The Cridge Park camp] created significant problems in the neighbourhood, as I recall, and, during the very brief occupation of the square during the Occupy movement, we also became aware of a number of the issues, including very basic things such as fire protection and making sure people are safe,” Young said. A tent city “would require an enormous amount of input from staff.”

Helps said the planned designated tenting area would be “completely different” from the ad hoc Cridge Park and Occupy camps. She compared the planned tent city to the Our Place community shelter. “You walk into Our Place and drug dealing is not tolerated. Violence is not tolerated. Whatever non-profit ends up running the temporary tenting area would have rules in place and security in place,” Helps said. “It’s meant to be a temporary place, but it’s also meant to be a safe place.”

She also wants the tenting area to operate as a ladder to permanent shelter.

But Young is worried the city might end up with people still pitching tents in any park they choose. “I don’t think it’s going to represent a significant means of addressing underlying issues and it will create some enormous problems — to say nothing of a very large expense.”

The city already faces a huge expense dealing with people camping in city parks, said Coun. Ben Isitt, estimating that it costs $2,500 daily to have a team of police officers, bylaw officers and parks staff wake up sleeping homeless people. That money could be put to better use, he said.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

Topaz Park map