Victoria’s mayor says she’ll seek to overturn a move by council to allow a homeless encampment to return to a public square directly outside city hall.
Council voted to remove Centennial Square from a list of parks where homeless campers are banned from sheltering during a meeting Thursday to develop new bylaws related to the homeless crisis.
“I was shocked, quite honestly, about the proposal to remove Centennial Square from the prohibited list of sites,” Lisa Helps said Friday.
“There’s no good place to camp out in the city. There is no park that is appropriate for sheltering in a country like Canada in the 21st century with so much wealth around us, but there are some places that might be better than others, and the centre of the central business district is not one of those places.”
Council is set to review and formally approve the draft bylaw at an upcoming meeting, which is when Helps says she’ll seek to again ban homeless campers from the square.
Two other councillors would need to change their votes, she said.
The city cleared a homeless encampment from the square on Tuesday, amid escalating crime and violence in the area.
Downtown Victoria businesses have raised mounting concern in recent months about a spike in property crime.
Many downtown businesses say they’re fearful they may have to shut their doors should the situation continue to escalate, according to Downtown Victoria Business Association executive director Jeff Bray.
“My phone has been ringing off the hook from businesses very concerned about this decision and the impacts this could have as we head into the fall,” said Bray.
Victoria Coun. Geoff Young, whose motion led to Centennial Square being removed from the list of prohibited camping sites, said if the city was going to deal with homeless encampments, it was only fair that they be front and centre to council and city staff.
“Compared to all the other parks, compared to our playgrounds, our playing fields, our schools, Centennial Square is no worse than any of those,” Young told Global News.
Young argued that the bigger problem are bylaws that permit homeless people to set up shelters during the daytime.
Until the city bans that practice, homeless encampments will be a permanent and growing fixture, he said.
“Going around playing whack-a-mole, listening to where the worst problems are and trying to close them down is not the way to go,” he said.
“What we have to do is just put an end to daytime camping, period.”
Helps told reporters on Friday that the scale of the city’s homelessness problem was being magnified by the COVID-19 crisis, which has prompted many shelters to cut their capacity in half.
She said the city has limited financial resources to address the crisis, and that while the province has stepped up with more money during the pandemic, the federal government has largely been absent.
Other measures included in Victoria’s draft bylaw include limiting the size of homeless structures to three-metres squared, and requiring that they are spaced four metres apart.
The draft bylaw also includes funding to hire five new bylaw officers.
Centennial Square remained fenced off Friday for cleaning and remediation.