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Victoria council to review Beacon Hill camping as city faces lawsuit

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps plans to call a special closed council meeting on Thursday to discuss encampments in Beacon Hill Park and throughout the city.
A non-profit organization that aims to preserve Beacon Hill Park plans to sue the City of Victoria over council’s decision to allow 24/7 sheltering in parks amid a global pandemic that drastically reduced shelter beds. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps plans to call a special closed council meeting on Thursday to discuss encampments in Beacon Hill Park and throughout the city.

Council is on a summer break, set to return in September, but Helps said she is calling the meeting because the situation around 24/7 sheltering in parks isn’t working for anyone.

“Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as simply enforcing the [7 a.m. to 7 p.m.] camping bylaw without a better plan in place. … Because where will 300 people go all day with all of their things?” she said in a text message.

Like other indoor spaces during the pandemic, shelters and agencies serving homeless people have had to reduce their capacity to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The meeting will be closed to the public so council can receive legal advice. Helps said any decisions about bylaws will be made at a meeting open to the public when council resumes on Sept. 3.

Many residents have called on the city to return to enforcing the camping bylaw, which requires people to pack up their tent and belongings every morning by 7 a.m. Council voted to suspend enforcement of the bylaw during the pandemic to ensure people have a place to self-isolate.

Friends of Beacon Hill Park Society, which aims to protect the park’s natural and cultural history, plans to sue the city over the decision to allow 24/7 sheltering.

The society has launched an online fundraising page to collect donations to pay for legal action against the city, raising more than $3,800 as of Monday afternoon.

Roy Fletcher, president of the society, said the decision to allow 24/7 sheltering violates the terms of the park trust, because the park is intended to be for “the use and enjoyment of the public,” rather than for utility.

“Camping is utility. It’s establishing a permanent home in a park, and telling people this is your home and you can defend it as you need to. And some people in the camp, of the campers, are taking this very seriously. They think this is their permanent home,” Fletcher said.

He said there have been people sheltering overnight in the park for years, and he would be satisfied if the city began enforcing the bylaw again to prohibit daytime camping.

Only Coun. Geoff Young opposed the decision to suspend enforcement, but now at least one other councillor says she would support reinstating the time limit on sheltering.

Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe said she was originally in favour of the decision to allow 24/7 sheltering in parks, because the pandemic reduced shelter beds and closed day programs for people who are homeless. Thornton-Joe said her decision was also informed by guidelines for municipalities provided by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry that said “clearing or moving encampments without providing shelter/housing immediately can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers.”

Since the vote to suspend bylaw enforcement, more than 340 people have moved into motel rooms funded by the province and many day programs have reopened. Thornton-Joe said it’s those changes, as well as the growing frustration and safety concerns voiced by residents about the encampments, that has changed her mind.

“It’s just becoming too entrenched, and safety issues for the public and for those that are even camping is now raised to a level that has brought me concerns, and it’s been a concern for a little while for me.”

Young said council has received “floods of emails” complaining about interactions with campers, theft, people casing buildings, discarded needles and garbage. He said packing up every day is inconvenient for those living in tents, but campers have become too entrenched in the park, with large structures and collections of big items, like furniture, barbecues and generators. He said council has received many letters from park users who say campers treat them like “interlopers” trespassing in their home.

“From the point of view of impacts on the park environment and other park users, it is absolutely preferable to prohibit day-time permanent camping,” Young said.

Advocates for the homeless say that an end to 24/7 sheltering will disperse a large group of people with nowhere to go, transferring the issue somewhere else, instead of solving anything. “Where would they put their tents during the day?” said Julian Daly, CEO of Our Place, adding that shelters are “pretty full” because they’re operating at limited capacity to meet physical distancing requirements.

Daly said many people would likely lose their tents, because they would have nowhere to store them during the day.

“If they lose that … that’s their home right now. They don’t have any access to other shelter right now, so if they lose their tent, they lose their shelter. It’s as simple as that, really.”

He said forcing people to pack up in Beacon Hill Park will see campers move to other parts of the city, sending the concerns of Beacon Hill Park neighbours to other areas.

> See CAMP, A2

“We do understand the fears and concerns that citizens have about camping. I get that. I really do. But at the same time, we’re also concerned for those who have the camps as their only home, and what that would mean toww lose even that meagre home,” Daly said.

“Really as a society, we’ve got to sort this once and for all, so that the people who are feeling fearful about people camping don’t need to have those fears anymore, because the people aren’t camping there, because they’ve been found homes, permanent homes. That way I think everyone would be happy.”

Kelly Roth, executive director of the Coalition to End Homelessness, said forcing tenters to pack up every morning would lead to people travelling from place to place through Victoria streets looking for a place to rest, whether in other parks, in doorways, or other places that feel relatively safe. “I’m not saying encampments are the ideal situation, but having 250 people or so wandering the streets every day, every night looking for a place to be is not a solution either.”

Roth said overdose deaths — which hit record levels in May and June, killing 346 people in B.C. in two months — would likely increase if those camping in the park had to pack up and move along every morning, because people who are now living in a community could find themselves isolated and using drugs alone. Breaking up the community would also make it more difficult for outreach workers and health care professionals to provide help to those in need, she said.

“It’s one thing when you know where someone is and can get to them with prescriptions or with whatever kind of a medical program they’re on. Once they’re moving and the outreach workers that work in harm reduction are just trying to find them, that’s going to be challenging,” Roth said.

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