Victoria city council will continue to allow people without homes to camp in Beacon Hill Park and other approved locations during the COVID-19 outbreak without having to pack up their belongings each morning.
Despite stiff opposition from other park users and nearby residents, councillors reaffirmed a previous decision to stop enforcing overnight sheltering rules that prohibit camping from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day.
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, who appeared close to tears in moving the recommendation at committee of the whole Thursday, acknowledged that the issue has reached a “boiling point.” But she said council and the community have to figure out a way for everyone to live together during the pandemic.
“The most difficult times define us as a community, not the good times,” she said. “And it is heartbreaking to see such vitriol coming the way of staff, coming the way of council and, particularly, citizen on citizen. And I think we can do better than this as a community.”
Helps said other cities are wrestling with the same problem after the COVID-19 outbreak forced homeless shelters to close or reduce their number of spaces, pushing more people onto the street.
“So this is not a Victoria problem,” she said. “This is a Canadian problem.”
The city’s latest census showed 187 people living in outdoor spaces across the city, including Beacon Hill Park, Centennial Square, Central Park, Stadacona Park and Ellice Street near Rock Bay Landing. B.C. Housing has moved hundreds of others into motel rooms and other temporary shelter locations.
Helps said allowing those who remain outside to shelter in place is consistent with public-health advice to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.
Councillors voted 7-1 in favour of her motion to allow the encampments, with only Coun. Geoff Young in opposition.
Young had called for an end to all-day camping, noting mounting complaints from people who no longer feel safe in the park and worry about lasting damage to environmentally sensitive areas.
He said council has made clear through its decisions that it doesn’t want to see tent encampments go on forever, yet it allows them to continue for an undetermined period of time before shutting them down. “And, frankly, I think the only people who think that that’s a good course of action are people sitting around this table,” he said.
More than 10,000 people have signed an online petition calling on the city to reverse course and stop using Beacon Hill Park as a “tent city.”
Cynthia Diadick, who launched the petition, said she was “extremely, extremely disappointed” in the mayor’s motion, which she said ignored residents’ concerns as well as evidence from city staff. Council was told Thursday that threats against city workers have led to a new protocol whereby bylaw officers now accompany parks staff performing routine maintenance.
“As far as I’m concerned … something bad’s going to happen,” Diadick said. “And I hope it doesn’t happen to some innocent person. But there’s no control. There’s nobody overseeing what’s going on there.”
Roy Fletcher, who chairs the Friends of Beacon Hill Park Society, said the fire department will eventually have to intervene and put an end to the camping, given the fire risks.
“But waiting for that to happen is just not a good option,” he said. “They should have closed it down right now, because there’s more people coming all the time.”
City staff confirmed officers continue to find gas-powered generators, barbecues, cigarettes, drug-burning paraphernalia and fire pits at the various encampments.
Despite those concerns, councillors said the ongoing pandemic and drug-overdose crisis require the city to ease camping restrictions.
“I personally don’t think permanent tent cities are desirable either,” Coun. Ben Isitt said. “I think housing rights, homes with supports with appropriate social care is the goal for us to work toward.
“But, as a temporary emergency measure, I’m not prepared to support a return to the constant displacement and the cat-and-mouse game that afflicted both the unhoused as well as city staff and others prior to this pandemic.”
Coun. Marianne Alto said the city will have to resume enforcement of its 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. bylaws eventually.
“But I don’t think that time is today,” she said.
“There’s no place for these folks to go right now, whether it’s during the day because of all the things that have been closed or just in general.”