Vancouver Park Board votes 4-3 to allow overnight camping in city parks

Click to play video: 'Overnight camping bylaw change won’t affect tent cities in Vancouver parks'
Overnight camping bylaw change won’t affect tent cities in Vancouver parks
Overnight camping bylaw change won’t affect tent cities in Vancouver parks. Grace Ke reports. – Jul 14, 2020

Tuesday night’s Vancouver Park Board meeting saw dozens more speakers voice their opinion on a controversial bylaw allowing people to sleep overnight in city parks, before commissioners narrowly voted to pass the amended Parks Control Bylaw regarding Temporary Shelter in Parks.

The bylaw vote passed 4-3.

NPA park board commissioners Tricia Barker and John Coupar voted against, along with COPE commissioner John Irwin.

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The homeless camp in Strathcona Park has been swelling in numbers, with an estimated 235 tents at the site as of Monday taking up about a third of the 10-hectare park, encroaching on tennis courts and sports fields.

Click to play video: 'Strathcona encampment growing ahead of Park Board meeting on overnight camping'
Strathcona encampment growing ahead of Park Board meeting on overnight camping

Tuesday night’s speakers each had a different opinion on the temporary shelter debate:

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“… if you support this bylaw, you are supporting everyone in encampments to roam around the neighbourhood every day, instead of staying in safe central locations…”
“… I support this bylaw, in that it is the only way to regulate permanent encampments such as the one in Strathcona…”
“… Defer this motion, until you can consult with people who have lived experience with homelessness…”
“… I don’t think this is park board territory to be the ones to try to figure this out…”
“… Our parks board needs something better than what is proposed; they need to do more than to force campers to decamp daily, because we don’t want to see them…”
“… I think you need to go back to the drawing board a little bit and look at what is actually manageable as to what you can do, and go back to other levels of government for support.”
“… There’s simply too many restrictions…”
“… Apart from being completely inhumane, it’s not possible to use the parks as a safety valve to deal with inadequate social legislation…”

Park board commissioners who’d been discussing and listening to speakers on the matter for a total of nearly 12 hours over the course of the last two days were visibly tired by the end of last night’s meeting.

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Commissioner Camil Dumont at one point said: “I’m tired, and I’m frustrated with the amount of abuse we’ve been through on this.”

Tuesday’s meeting was called after a similar meeting Monday was recessed. Callers Monday night were similarly passionate about the homeless issue at parks.

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“A few days after the encampment was set up, we went over the children’s playground, only to find a fire started under the swings, and broken glass underneath the swings,” Strathcona resident Marie Wilcox said.

“It’s cruel to make people pack up and leave every day,” Coun. Jean Swanson said. “What if they don’t have the means to carry their stuff? What if it’s raining? What if they’re sick?”

Strathcona residents who thought the bylaw amendment would help address their concerns with the new tent city in their neighbourhood were surprised to find out that, if passed, the scope of the bylaw would not apply to encampments.

The amendment allows homeless people to sleep in some Vancouver parks overnight ⁠— reflecting B.C. Supreme Court precedent ⁠— but requires them to be taken down the next morning. This reflects on court decisions stating it’s a constitutional right, given the lack of adequate shelter space.

Other changes to the bylaw include that temporary shelters be contained within a three-metre by three-metre area, and be kept a distance of at least 25 metres from any playground or school. It would also put limits on where people can put up tents, banning them near schools and playgrounds and on sports fields and other amenities.

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Prior to this week’s meetings, Vancouver Coun. Pete Fry, himself a Strathcona resident, had said he’d been hearing frustration from constituents.

Click to play video: 'Vancouver Park Board to consider allowing overnight camping in parks'
Vancouver Park Board to consider allowing overnight camping in parks

“I’ve heard from a number of local residents who are a little bit intimidated to come down here and no longer attend this park and certainly won’t let their children attend this park,” said Fry.

“The big elephant in the room is the number of stolen goods that we’re finding in the park.”

COPE Park Commissioner John Irwin didn’t deny that crime was occurring in the park but questioned whether it was at a “fevered pitch.”

Irwin said “technically” the park board remains in control of Strathcona Park, though he acknowledged the encampment is run by its own organizers.

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He said the situation appears to be better than the Oppenheimer Park encampment, in that organizers are more active about asking people “who aren’t behaving” to leave.

The Oppenheimer camp saw a murder, a vicious, hours-long sexual assault and multiple weapons seizures.

Irwin acknowledged challenges in trying to displace the camp, bylaw or not.

“If you do an injunction then they move to another park, and another park, and there’s no way to deal with it,” he said.

Camp spokesperson Chrissy Brett denied the camp is a haven for thieves, but acknowledged that “survival crime” is a part of life for many people experiencing homelessness and addiction.

Brett says campers will ignore the bylaw, if it passes.

But she said the camp’s residents don’t actually want to be in the park. She’s instead calling on senior government to set land aside in the city for a “Canadian refugee camp” with access to toilets, electricity, running water and social services.

“How is it that this community has been able to step forward and do everything that the governments have refused to do? Why is it that the only legal place in Canada to shelter in place is a public park?” she said.

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“If people are mad about it, then address it through the right political process.”

Click to play video: 'Who’s in control of Vancouver’s Strathcona Park encampment?'
Who’s in control of Vancouver’s Strathcona Park encampment?

The concept is not all that different from a pitch by the Strathcona Business Improvement Association (BIA) and the local residents’ association earlier this month for a permanent, sanctioned site for homeless campers.

Strathcona BIA executive director Theodora Lamb wouldn’t say Sunday whether she thinks the Strathcona encampment should come down, but acknowledged that “parks are not a long term solution for camps.”

“We always have concerns when we lose green space to our daily activities, sports, parks and rec, it’s summertime we’re in the middle of the pandemic, people need to be outside,” she said.

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“The importance of the bylaw right now is that they’re talking about the city as a whole.”

Click to play video: 'New tent city set up in Vancouver’s Strathcona Park'
New tent city set up in Vancouver’s Strathcona Park

Irwin said the solution to the camp is to bring more housing online, but said his hope was that with the bylaw change, homeless campers might disperse somewhat to other parks.

Fry, however, said he was concerned the growing encampment could devolve into a repeat of the Oppenheimer experience.

“As long as there’s criminal activities, stolen goods, life safety issues, it’s not going to be possible for us to sanction any kind of a camp like this as city council,” he said.

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