Nanaimo considers allowing homeless people to camp in parks

Nanaimo Regional District directors are set to vote today on a controversial proposal that would set rules about when and where homeless people can camp overnight in some — but not all — parks.

Opponents of the idea have launched a petition on Change.org that had more than 3,200 signatures by midday Monday. They warn that allowing camping would cause housing prices to plummet and parks to fill up with garbage, tarps, needles and tents.

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The petition said the regional district needs to work with professionals who deal with the homeless on a regular basis, arguing just giving homeless people a place to camp won’t fix the problem.

Regional district board chair Ian Thorpe, a Nanaimo councillor, said the proposed bylaw is consistent with steps the municipality took following B.C. Supreme Court decisions in 2018 in response to a tent city in Nanaimo.

The tent city, with more than 300 campers at its height, developed on Port Place and ran for several months before it was dismantled at the end of 2018.

“The bylaw that is being proposed has come about as a response to the B.C. Supreme Court rulings, which have basically said we cannot prohibit homeless camping in open spaces,” Thorpe said. “But it does allow us to put certain restrictions on it.”

The proposal would allow homeless people to camp in certain district parks between 7 p.m. and 9 a.m. Campers would have to take all their personal possessions with them when they left, and clean up the site.

The proposal includes a list of more than 70 parks that would be off-limits to camping at any time, because of environmental sensitivity or proximity to conservation areas, playgrounds or housing. Campers would not be permitted on any trails, paths or water accesses.

Parks where camping would not be allowed include Moorecroft, Captain Ahab’s Terrace, Cedar Skatepark, Extension Miners Community Park, Little Qualicum Falls Community Park and Errington Community Park.

The Nanaimo area has been wrestling with how best to deal with the high number of homeless people and related problems.

Two supportive housing complexes were set up to house some of the campers after the tent city closed.

Their presence has set off additional controversy, as people living nearby have complained about criminal activity in their neighbourhoods.

The City of Nanaimo recently created a health and housing task force to develop strategies for dealing with the homeless population, which is related in some cases to addiction problems and mental-health issues, Thorpe said.

The next count of homeless people is scheduled to start March 11 and run into March 12. Those working with the homeless population expect numbers to rise again.

In April 2018, the count was 335, up from 174 in the winter of 2016.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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