Editorial: Prevention is the cure for camping in city parks

The tents springing up every evening in many city parks are the symptom of a chronic disease that Victoria has been unable to cure. As with so many diseases, if we want to make a difference, we have to focus on prevention.

The issue of homelessness returned to the public agenda last week, with a report on camping in city parks. In parks including Beacon Hill, Cridge, Topaz, Kings, Holland Point, Arbutus and Haegert, tents pop up about 8 p.m. each night, temporary homes for hundreds of people. The next day at 7 a.m., police and bylaw officers rouse the campers and send them on their way.

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The campers are taking advantage of a city bylaw passed after a B.C. Court of Appeal ruling in 2009 that in the absence of shelter beds, it is unconstitutional to prohibit people from putting up shelters in parks.

It’s called “sheltering,” and it’s not good for the campers, the law-enforcement officers or anybody else.

In dollar terms last year, it cost $400,000 for police, $165,000 for bylaw officers and $100,000 for cleanup. The camps lead to noise complaints, garbage and destruction of ecosystems. But the true cost can’t be measured in decibels or dollars.

In the winter, the shelters are full. Victoria police Insp. Scott McGregor has been keeping track and says the shelters run at 118 per cent of capacity.

Since October, additional mats and beds dropped that to 112 per cent.

Neither number is anything to smile about.

About 10 per cent of the people who throw up tents are believed to be travellers taking advantage of the court’s so-called “Adams decision” to find a cheap place to stay. The rest, however, are homeless, the people who are at the sharp end of a problem that this city has struggled with for decades.

Using police officers as concierges in an outdoor hotel is not a solution to that problem.

Coun. Jeremy Loveday has suggested having outreach workers do the wake-up calls instead. That would be a better use of everyone’s time and be less threatening for the campers, but someone with a warm cup of coffee rousting you out of your chilly tent is still someone rousting you, no matter how friendly the smile.

The numbers will only grow because the winter shelters closed last week. The tireless Rev. Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society expects to see more people in parks and on the street as he goes on his rounds bringing food and cheer to the homeless.

He is supplying them with tents and tarps, as well as coffee and muffins.

“The lousy thing is it costs a lot less money for people to be housed than homeless,” he told the Times Colonist’s Sarah Petrescu.

He says the city is doing its part, but the federal and provincial governments are not doing theirs.

It’s standard procedure to put money into hospital rooms and jail cells, but governments have a much tougher time investing dollars in projects that would keep people out of hospital rooms and jail cells. Housing is one of those preventive investments.

Victoria city councillors, who stick by their housing-first policy, plan to push harder for senior governments to put some money into housing solutions.

They will also consider a proposal from Coun. Ben Isitt to increase the city’s contribution to affordable housing to $1 million from $250,000. A step such as that would give the city some moral heft when it knocks on federal or provincial doors.

It can take time to see the benefits of prevention, but for those with the courage to stick with it, those benefits will come.

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