People without homes will be allowed to camp in Beacon Hill Park and other approved locations for at least another month without having to pack up their belongings each morning.
Bylaw officers have stopped enforcing overnight sheltering rules during the COVID-19 outbreak, effectively allowing people to establish permanent campsites.
Victoria city councillors voted Thursday to extend that practice until June 25 to ensure that people have a place to self-isolate during the pandemic — a move that one councillor warned could lead to a new tent city in Beacon Hill Park.
Councillors also directed staff to leave abandoned shelters and belongings in place for 72 hours after they have been tagged by a bylaw officer. Once seized, items will be impounded in a secure facility where they can be retrieved by the owner for 30 days.
The seizure and storage of items is subject to the advice of public health officials and workplace safety directives.
Coun. Sarah Potts, who helped craft the motion, noted that many of the places that serve vulnerable people remain closed due to the pandemic.
"If people get sick, they still need somewhere to self-isolate for 14 days and that risk is not gone,” she said. “And I don’t want for us to be in a position where we don’t have that option. I’m not talking about a tent city. We’re not talking about inflated numbers.
“We know people live in Beacon Hill Park. We’re talking about the people that live there now and their ability to protect themselves from what we don’t know is still going to come.”
But Coun. Geoff Young, who was alone in opposition, warned that council was headed in the wrong direction by restricting the discretion of bylaw officers and preventing them, for example, from ordering the removal of tents that are too large or take up too much space.
“We are tethering our bylaw staff,” he said. “We are basically ordering the creation of a new tent camp in Beacon Hill Park with this motion and I just think it’s a deplorable direction for us to be going.”
Mayor Lisa Helps objected to that interpretation.
“That’s actually not at all what’s happening,” she said, prompting a heated exchange with Young over how the motion would be interpreted by staff.
Helps eventually put the question to Shannon Perkins, manager of bylaw services, who said staff would still have the ability to enforce certain rules.
“So to me it doesn’t tie my hands that way to deal with large structures that shouldn’t be there to begin with, “ Perkins said. “We will still have those conversations with folks who have those large structures to try to get them to move to a smaller structure.”
Roy Fletcher, chair of the Friends of Beacon Hill Park Society, is frustrated that the city isn’t doing more to prevent a large encampment from taking over the idyllic park.
“I don’t think the city intends to move people out of Beacon Hill Park,” he said.
Fletcher, who has been with the group for 24 years, said he has been flooded with emails from people who feel unsafe walking by tents, which are clustered in the bushes near Dallas Road and at the north end of the park at the corner of Southgate and Quadra streets.
“People say they walk by and it’s an obviously threatening environment, the campers do not want people around,” he said. “Families are going to return to the park and eventually there’s going to be conflict [between campers] and neighbours.”
There are no adequate toilet facilities for people sheltering in the park, Fletcher said.
Fletcher worries about the risk of fires during the dry summer months.
Bylaw officers are reminding people sheltering in parks that fires are not permitted, and they are prohibited from setting up tents in environmentally sensitive areas or attaching shelters to trees, in playgrounds and sports fields, and on footpaths or roads within a park, said City of Victoria spokesman Bill Eisenhauer.
Helps has said city staff estimate there are about 90 people without homes living in Beacon Hill Park and places other than the Topaz and Pandora camps, which the province ordered shut down by the end of Wednesday.
B.C. Housing reported Thursday that 344 people had moved to hotels and other facilities from the two camps by the deadline.