Cleaning up after homeless campers in parks continues to be a major expense for the City of Victoria in spite of the creation of hundreds of new social housing units.
For the second straight year, Victoria councillors approved a “one time only” supplementary budget allocation of $200,000 for park maintenance issues related to sheltering in parks. The figure is $100,000 less than staff had recommended.
Councillors made the reduction even though director of parks and recreation Thomas Soulliere said the city overspent the $200,000 allocated last year and that problems associated with camping in parks are not on the decline.
“I wish I could report that we’ve seen a noticeable decrease, but that hasn’t been the experience of our field staff,” Soulliere said.
Victoria has been wrestling with the issue of camping in parks since a 2008 B.C. Supreme Court ruling deemed it unconstitutional to deny a person the right to erect shelter in the absence of available shelter beds. City staff say the budget allocation is needed not only for cleanup of trash, abandoned goods and needles but also to keep some park washrooms open into the evening and provide extra security.
Coun. Geoff Young said camping in parks is having such an enormous impact that some people now view living near a park to be a disadvantage.
“People used to like living above a park,” he said. “Now, you live above a park and you’re likely to get violent, profane screaming fights in the middle of the night under your window. You’re likely to have people coming and plugging into your outdoor plugs or using your water tap.
“And people who want to use the parks early in the morning, may find they are essentially occupied and turned into campgrounds.”
City regulations state that overnight shelter must be temporary, such as tents or shelter made from a tarp, plastic or cardboard. Shelter can only be erected from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. from March to October, and 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. from November to February.
Tents and property cannot be left behind after 7 a.m. and items found may be impounded for collection by the owner, and garbage may be disposed of. Open flames and smoking are not allowed.
Young said every effort has to go into opening enough shelter beds so the city can disallow camping in parks.
“We need to have, as an objective, the creation of enough shelter spaces that we can send the message out loud and clear: ‘You are never ever allowed to camp in any City of Victoria park, period, because we will always have a shelter mat for you,’ ” he said.
Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe said the cleanups are important. She has heard from pet owners and there have been about a half a dozen reports from veterinarians in the past year about dogs getting sick from substances — perhaps pharmaceuticals — they’ve ingested that have been left behind by campers.
“I think it’s a safety issue as well as [necessary], so the parks as public spaces can be enjoyed by all,” she said.
Mayor Lisa Helps said she was “unhappy to support” the budget allocation but that she would.
“Parks, unfortunately, are a place where people need to shelter and that’s going to be the case until we build enough housing,” Helps said.
Helps supported the reduction in the budget allocation to $200,000 but recommended staff report back on the budget expenditures at the end of the summer. If more money is needed at that time, it can be provided, she said.
“I think we’re being prudent on this one because we’re being hopeful, but I don’t want you cutting from other programs,” Helps told Soulliere.
Coun. Ben Isitt, who proposed the reduction to $200,000 from $300,000, hoped that new housing initiatives will help reduce costs of cleanup. He noted that council has recently added four small parks to the list of those where camping is prohibited.
“Anecdotally, in Beacon Hill Park, there do seem to be major ongoing issues around sheltering, but I personally don’t see a lot of it elsewhere in the city,” he said. “I might be wrong, but I’d like to see how this works for this year.”