The Vancouver Park Board is weighing bylaw changes that would allow overnight camping in city parks, while a neighbourhood group is calling on the city, provincial and federal governments to find a new location for dozens of people who are camping in Strathcona Park in the city’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.
The Park Board, which is responsible for parks in the City of Vancouver, was scheduled to meet Monday evening to discuss a staff recommendation that the city amend its bylaws to allow overnight camping.
A current bylaw prohibits tenting in parks, but it hasn’t been enforced in light of a series of court decisions that have established that people who are homeless have a constitutional right to set up temporary shelters on public lands if other housing isn’t available.
In Strathcona Park, meanwhile, dozens of tents have been pitched in an encampment that organizers have dubbed Camp KT – a reference to Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – and that has become a visible reminder of a provincewide housing crunch.
In a July 12 open letter, the Strathcona Residents’ Association demanded action on the encampment, saying it is hurting marginalized groups, “particularly during a pandemic where green space is extremely limited.”
In the letter, the SRA called for “creative solutions to this complex problem,” including potentially moving the camp to another site.
Shane Simpson, B.C.‘s Minister for Social Development and Poverty Reduction, said he sympathized with the SRA’s perspective but that he expected the encampment to remain where it is, for at least a while.
The province continues to focus on finding permanent housing for people, Mr. Simpson said.
“I’m sympathetic to the concern about the impact [the encampment] has on a community park,” Mr. Simpson said. “On the other hand, the folks in the tent city there, I don’t expect they’re going anywhere soon.
“It’s a challenging situation between legitimate concerns about people wanting to make sure they can access their park and a group of people living in the park – the majority of whom need a place to live.”
Mr. Simpson said the province has bought hotels and is building housing to help get people into homes but needs more help from the federal government.
A city spokeswoman said Monday in an e-mail that the city does not control any vacant sites that would be feasible for an encampment but is working with the province to expand shelter and housing capacity to help people who are homeless, including those staying in Strathcona Park at present.
Camp spokeswoman Chrissy Brett called on the Park Board to follow the City of Victoria’s lead and allow people to “shelter in place” in municipal parks during the pandemic.
In June, Victoria City Council voted to allow people without homes to keep their tents up in permitted sheltering areas in the city. Victoria has a bylaw that prohibits all but overnight camping in city parks but that bylaw has not been enforced during the pandemic.
The city also put out a list of parks where overnight sheltering is allowed, as long as campers follow certain conditions, including staying away from environmentally sensitive areas.
At the Strathcona camp Monday, camper James Stevenson Low said he had been living in a single-room occupancy hotel but became homeless when his landlord evicted him.
Mr. Low said he preferred his tent to his room in the hotel and has been able to get access to food, running water in a nearby bathroom and medical services.
He said he had applied for social housing more than once and would accept a unit if he were offered one. “I would jump right at it,” he said. “That’s all I wish for is a home.”
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