Lawrie McFarlane: Tent-city compromise will only bring more campers

I wonder how many residents of Saanich realize their municipality has no plans to close the tent city at Regina Park.

In court proceedings last week, it became clear that council was merely seeking a temporary injunction to enter the park, tidy up shrubs, cut the grass and lay down wood chips.

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That injunction was granted Friday in B.C. Supreme Court.

For two or three weeks, while the cleanup is underway, the campers have been told they are free to move to any one of 102 other parks in the district. After that, they can return to Regina Park, so long as they conform to the municipality’s bylaws. These require that residents of a tent city must move out in the morning and return in the evening.

While I appreciate the legal issues, which we’ll come to in a moment, this is a dreadful solution.

In a recent Times Colonist story, it was reported that the park is strewn with needles, that there is evidence of stolen goods, that neighbours have received death threats, that police believe a bicycle chop-shop is operating, and that residents have repeatedly ignored requests to stop smoking in their tents.

Propane cylinders and jerry cans full of gasoline are scattered around, the company that provides porta-potties is refusing to go into the park without a police escort due to a physical confrontation with residents, and heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl have been found. Fire officials have met with outright defiance.

There are two concerns here. First, why would anyone believe this chaos will cease when the residents return after the cleanup? All that has been accomplished is that instead of daylight mayhem, local homeowners will have to endure the nighttime variety.

Second, by declining to ask for a permanent injunction, and merely seeking temporary relief for clean-up purposes, isn’t Saanich conceding the principle that homeless people may camp in municipal parks indefinitely?

Here the legal background becomes central. In 2015, the City of Abbotsford sought a court injunction to close a tent city. The judge in that case made two rulings that are relevant here.

First, he concluded that genuinely homeless people have the right to a warm and dry place to sleep, and if that means camping in a city park, so be it. By genuinely homeless, he meant to exclude various activist groups who are using this issue for political purposes, and people who have other options.

The judge did rule that campers should be required to take down their tents at dawn, and return in the evening. In other words, he narrowed this right to overnight camping. That is the guidance Saanich is following, and realistically, it doesn’t appear council had much choice.

Second, however, the judge admitted he thought it unfair to local homeowners that just any park should be open for this purpose. He speculated that Abbotsford could set aside a designated area for homeless camping, and that this would provide certainty for everyone involved.

What he meant was that it’s unfair to people who bought houses adjoining a park to suddenly find a tent city next door. However, since this remedy would require passing a bylaw, he left that up to the municipality.

And here, I think, is where Saanich erred. Regina Park, due to its location, is wholly unsuitable for a permanent tent city. So are most, if not all, of the district’s 102 other parks that council is offering as temporary alternatives.

Green areas have traditionally been viewed as an enhancement of urban neighbourhoods. But as the Times Colonist story noted in grim detail, tent cities are anything but that.

I understand Saanich has to provide a compromise solution. Having limited means to provide affordable housing, council has already conceded the legitimacy of a permanent encampment.

However, by offering the Regina Park residents access to any of 102 other parks deemed suitable for the purpose, hasn’t council opened the door to multiple encampments?

I’m not suggesting this outcome was intended. It was meant purely as a short-term expedient.

But Regina Park is already crowded. When more campers arrive, as they surely will, what happens if they demand access to other parks?

As the judge in the Abbotsford case urged, why not designate a suitable tract of ground set apart from residential housing, and direct homeless campers to the site? That would bring closure to everyone.

There will still be challenges. No matter which site is chosen, someone will complain.

And it will be necessary to find a location within reasonable reach of medical and social services.

But as it is, an almost boundless right to set up tent cities has been conceded. Or so it appears.

Council needs to rethink its policy, before the situation gets any worse.

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