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People who had been staying at Oppenheimer Park – seen here on March 26, 2020 – moved earlier this month, and those staying at the two Victoria sites were expected to move by Wednesday, Shane Simpson said.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Local governments would have to take the lead if they wanted to set up authorized tent encampments for the homeless, says the provincial minister overseeing a program to move about 600 people from tent cities in Vancouver and Victoria into housing.

“If something like that were to occur, it would have to start with the local governments being supportive,” Shane Simpson, B.C.'s Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, said on Wednesday on a conference call with reporters.

“A local government would have to come forward and say they want to explore that before we would consider doing that in a community,” Mr. Simpson added.

Vancouver won’t make such a request, Mayor Kennedy Stewart said.

“Tent cities are not the answer,” Mr. Stewart said on Wednesday in an e-mailed statement.

“Instead, we need permanent housing solutions. The federal and provincial governments have the means to deliver the housing we need, all that’s required is the will to do so,” he added.

Some advocates have called for sanctioned tent cities, with services such as bathrooms and running water, even as the province is wrapping up a process to move about 600 people from three homeless encampments: Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver and the Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue sites in Victoria.

Provincial agency BC Housing and non-profit service providers are co-ordinating the moves, following an April 24 order under B.C.'s Emergency Program Act to clear the sites because of health and safety concerns, including those posed by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The May 9 deadline was later extended until May 20 for the two Victoria sites. People who had been staying at Oppenheimer Park moved earlier this month, and those staying at the two Victoria sites were expected to move by Wednesday, Mr. Simpson said.

Pivot Legal, a Vancouver-based legal advocacy group, recently raised concerns about moving people from encampments into housing, saying in a May 14 letter to the province that the process was causing “immense, unnecessary harm” to campers and was at odds with public health goals and court decisions that have backed their right to set up tents in parks when housing or shelter is not available.

Pivot listed several concerns, including an increased risk of overdose because people are being moved rapidly without adequate supports, and that tent cities should remain for those who need them.

Asked about those concerns, Mr. Simpson defended the process.

“We’ve had outreach workers in the camp from day one – workers who are community-based workers, from B.C. Housing, from my ministry, from [the Vancouver Island Health Authority],” Mr. Simpson said, adding that health services are available in the housing provided.

“We’re very confident that this has been the most comprehensive and engaged process of this type that we have ever seen and that I believe it’s been done successfully,” he added.

As people were moving from Oppenheimer Park earlier this month, a new cluster of tents appeared a few blocks away, on a waterfront parking lot owned by the Port of Vancouver and next to city-run Crab Park.

In a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, camp spokeswoman Chrissy Brett said she would like to see sanctioned tent cities with services, saying the push to find homes for people in three sites has not helped hundreds of others who are homeless but not as visible.

Mr. Simpson said BC Housing has been in touch with a handful of people who moved from Oppenheimer Park into that new encampment, but is otherwise monitoring the situation and expects the port to take legal action.

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority on May 15 applied for an injunction to remove the encampment, citing unspecified losses and damages. A court date has not been set.

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