Widen ban on camping in Victoria's parks, critics urge

Victoria councillors considering banning camping in four small city parks are already being pressured to add more to the list.

Coun. Ben Isitt, who proposed banning overnight sheltering in Haegert, Cridge, Kings and Arbutus parks, said the four parks are too small and too close to residents.

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Particularly hard hit, Isitt said, is Haegert Park, where up to six or seven tents are pitched every night. “It’s a de facto tent city. I understand why. It’s because the people who live in those tents have no other shelter. Then every morning at 7 a.m., they are woken up by bylaw officers or the police. And it’s just not sustainable for anyone,” Isitt said.

But James Bay Neighbourhood Association president Marg Gardiner said the city shouldn’t create “winners and losers” by designating some parks as no-camping areas and not others. Gardiner has written to Victoria council asking that a dozen more parks and green spaces be added to the no-camping list. The list includes all the parks in James Bay, with the exception of Beacon Hill, which is shared with Fairfield.

“Once you exclude overnight sheltering in some parks, by necessity the people will go to other parks. So it’s just shifting it,” Gardiner said. “We think everyone should be treated the same — all residential areas.”

Isitt said Gardiner’s letter represents a “slippery slope” and the city cannot legally prohibit camping in all parks.

While a longer prohibited list could shift problems to other areas, it is manageable if at the same time the city increases capacity at short-term shelters, Isitt said.

The ban on camping in the four small parks would not take effect until campers and neighbouring residents are consulted and temporary housing options considered.

City officials estimate several hundred people routinely overnight in city parks and green spaces, leading to noise and nuisance complaints, as well as destruction of ecosystems and accumulation of mounds of trash that have to be hauled away. They estimate the annual cost at more than $600,000, including police, bylaw and parks staff time.

The number of campers in city parks has been on the rise since 2009, when the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled that in the absence of available shelter beds, it is unconstitutional to prohibit someone from erecting temporary shelter in a park.

In response, the city amended its parks bylaw to allow people to erect tents in parks between 7 p.m. (8 p.m. during daylight time) and 7 a.m. Bylaw officers and police conduct patrols to wake people and move them on in the mornings.

Most recently, the city allocated $1 million for social-housing and earmarked $150,000 for a pilot program to try micro-housing — ground-level shelters about the size of a garden shed.

Isitt said a regulated tent city is preferable to an unregulated one, but it’s still inferior to providing a proper apartment.

The Baptist Society is evaluating plans for its vacant care facility on Johnson Street, which is something the city should be looking at for short-term shelter or social housing, Isitt said.

The city’s parks regulation bylaw prohibits erection of shelters at any time in a playground, sports field, footpath, a road within a park, Bastion Square, environmentally sensitive areas or any area of a park designated for a special event.

Environmentally sensitive areas include all of Moss Rock Park, Summit Park and Cecelia Cove Park. The Garry oak stands in Topaz Park and Robert Porter Park and several areas of Beacon Hill Park are also protected.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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