Bylaw staff continue to face risks in parks, despite campers moving indoors

City bylaw staff continue to request the support of Victoria police to carry out their work monitoring encampments in parks despite shrinking camps as people move to indoor shelters.

Police Chief Del Manak told city council Thursday that while many people sheltering in parks are excited to move indoors and are co-operative with officers, some people have become entrenched and “quite vocal.” He spoke as part of council discussions about a $25,000 monthly funding request from Victoria police to continue a camp patrol.

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“There continue to be confrontation and discussion with a smaller group. So, you know, it’s almost two steps forward, one step back,” Manak said.

The funding would continue the deployment of two officers for four hours every day to support bylaw officers in some city parks. Two officers have supported city bylaw staff since September 2020, and council approved continued funding until the end of April, when it was anticipated police support would no longer be needed as 24/7 sheltering came to an end, Manak said in a letter to council requesting an indefinite continuation of the funding.

“Unfortunately, the situation in many of the parks has remained extremely volatile and unsafe for bylaw officers and our Patrol Division and Community Services Division resources continue to be shortstaffed resulting in on-duty resources not being a viable option,” Manak wrote.

Bylaw staff have been threatened, chased and intimidated while monitoring shelters in parks, and the city does not allow officers to visit certain areas unless ­accompanied by police. Last week, Shannon Perkins, manager of bylaw services, told council there were eight areas of the city where bylaw staff can’t work without support from police. “This is the highest number of elevated risk areas we have ever had. Police support for bylaw enforcement is limited, and some enforcement activity cannot occur without their presence, and this slows our work down,” she said.

At the same time, the number of tents in city parks is dropping as shelters open and people move indoors. Forty-one people moved indoors from parks between May 1 and May 5, and the number of shelters in parks dropped by 33 to 109, Perkins said.

More people are expected to leave parks after a tiny-homes community with 30 units opens Friday in the parking lot at Royal Athletic Park.

Several councillors were concerned that the Victoria police funding request was open-ended, to finish when police support is no longer needed. Councillors eventually voted at committee of the whole to approve funding up to Sept. 30, which will need to be ratified at a council meeting.

“I do absolutely support the need for this right now, but I think it’s important for us also to signal that we believe that the situation will, if not be resolved, at least be vastly improved over the next few months at the very latest,” Coun. Marianne Alto said.

Coun. Sarah Potts said she would support the additional funding to ensure the safety of city staff, but she felt “somewhat backed into a corner” and believes there are better alternatives to address poverty and mental-health issues in the city.

Coun. Jeremy Loveday echoed her concerns, saying the funding request points to the need for alternatives to policing in responding to mental-health issues.

Councillors Ben Isitt and Sharmarke Dubow opposed the additional funding.

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