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Victoria councillors commit to public input on tent city

Victoria council has officially committed to public consultation on tent cities and other housing issues for people in need.
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Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps takes questions from a crowd at Topaz Park on July 30, 2015. Councillors faced a public outcry from residents concerned about a tent city in the park.

Victoria council has officially committed to public consultation on tent cities and other housing issues for people in need.

The move came during a Wednesday meeting at city hall, and followed acknowledgment last week by Mayor Lisa Helps that the public should have more say on such matters.

Helps was responding to an outcry from residents near Topaz Park, which was identified in a municipal report as appearing to have the “greatest potential” among Victoria parks for a tent city.

Designated tenting facilities allow camping in designated areas of a park or other site, but concerns have been raised about security and whether such sites are the best places for homeless people.

“There’s a lot of us who live in the community [around Topaz Park] that think the tent city is a bad idea for the people that would have to live there, and it’s a bad idea for us,” said Phillip Chambers, who attended Wednesday’s meeting.

He said it was good to hear tent cities and other topics being addressed by council.

“There’s a lot of talk … about engagement now. I think a number of councillors have said they handled this poorly coming out of the gate.”

Chambers said he is hopeful that something positive will come from the direction Victoria council is taking.

“There’s a lot of work to be done. I’ll try to remain not too cynical about the whole thing because of the way this was thrown at us.”

Strong concerns have also been raised by residents of Victoria West that Banfield Park was also listed among potential spots for tent facilities.

In 2008, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny a person the right to erect shelter in a city park if there were no shelter beds available.

City staff estimate that about 130 people sleep in parks, costing the city an estimated $600,000 a year in associated costs.

Council voted to direct staff to consult with the public on other options before any proposal comes forward for a designated tenting site in a municipal park.

Staff will also be forming an ad hoc group of people from around the city to consider input on a previously approved action plan that looks at housing concerns and the idea of providing “sheltering” in city parks.

People from neighbourhood organizations or the street community could be among those making up the group.

Helps said that in addition to seeking public input, “we’re actively looking for solutions that are better than tenting areas.”

Helping homeless people does not necessarily mean a tent city will be established in a park, Coun. Ben Isitt said.

Victoria’s action plan also includes a micro-housing concept with a small community of homes about the size of garden sheds.

Isitt said micro-housing is “likely to be less controversial because it would be likely located on private land,” noting that a landowner has already stepped forward.

“It could be a temporary tenting area on leased private land, which would likely be much less controversial than parks,” he said. “It could be moving forward aggressively with a municipal housing program to build homes for everyone.”

Isitt said that stressing public involvement was a positive step by council.

“I think [the] motion is about ensuring that the city moves forward in a way that’s supportable by the community,” he said, adding: “I’m also really happy to see that the resolve of our council to improve the condition for people who are homeless in the near term has not been diluted.”

A public workshop on providing shelter for the homeless will be hosted by the city 5-7 p.m. Sept. 16 at a location to be determined.

jwbell@timescolonist.com