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Is it time for a sanctioned homeless camp in Vancouver?

Strathcona Park tent city latest of large-scale unsanctioned encampments in city
With more than 200 tents, the Strathcona Park homeless camp is the newest and largest unsanctioned encampment in Vancouver. Photo Mike Howell
Column: 12th&Cambie

Is it time for a sanctioned homeless camp in Vancouver?

The answer from Mayor Kennedy Stewart would be a hard no.

Can’t see Premier John Horgan or Housing Minister Selina Robinson challenging Stewart on his view, with provincial government after provincial government saying the solution to homelessness is building more housing.

That’s understood.

But reality being what it is in Vancouver in 2020, homeless camps such as the growing tent city in Strathcona Park — which popped up last month after encampments were cleared at Oppenheimer Park and on the private Port lands — appear to be here to stay.

A visit to Strathcona Tuesday confirmed that, with tents pitched across a swath of green space for as far as the eye could see. What’s not often mentioned about the encampment is the number of people also living in recreational vehicles, vans and cars lining the park along Raymur Avenue.

That makes for a lot of people without homes residing in one neighbourhood.

Before I continue, just a reminder the park board had nothing to do with shutting down Oppenheimer (emergency order from provincial government related to COVID-19) or the encampment in a parking lot near CRAB park (injunction sought by Port Authority).

In fact, as regular readers will recall, the majority of the board refused to temporarily cede jurisdiction of Oppenheimer to the mayor, as requested, so he could devise a plan to clear the park.

One of those commissioners, Gwen Giesbrecht, reiterated Tuesday that she will never cede jurisdiction or agree to an injunction to clear an encampment.

So where do we go from here?

The idea for a sanctioned homeless camp in a place other than a park is not a new conversation in this city. But people are again talking about it in light of the Strathcona camp and discussion around the park board revising a bylaw related to homelessness.

The parks control bylaw, as it is called, hasn’t been updated since the B.C. Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that homeless people have a constitutional right to sleep overnight in a park.

The updated version of the bylaw seeks to strike a balance between honouring those rights and the needs of people who regularly use the city’s parks. Those changes were a hot topic over two nights this week, with dozens of people sharing concerns with commissioners.

In the end, the board voted 4-3 to update the bylaw.

While the bylaw applies to all parks, the Strathcona encampment got most of the attention, with Giesbrecht asking several of the speakers whether it’s time for a sanctioned camp somewhere in the city.

Sanctioned camps in Portland and Seattle were mentioned in some of the responses, including one from Katie Lewis, vice-president of the Strathcona Residents’ Association.

“I believe that we should be looking at other cities that have done similar things,” Lewis said.

“But at the same time, if you look at places like Dignity Village in Portland, they have rules. One of them is no crime, and another one is it’s a sober camp. There are so many great examples and I do believe that there is a need for a sanctioned camp.”

Human rights advocate Morgane Oger recommended the park board work with the city and province to identify space that would enable “a governed-sanctioned camp that provides community, dignity, security, sanitation and services that everyone living in Vancouver relies on.”

Oger suggested the Little Mountain property where a long-awaited housing development remains idle, or the Pacific National Exhibition grounds as possible sites.

University of B.C. law professor Stepan Wood said daily displacement of homeless people —as the revised bylaw allows — is unacceptable and doesn’t recognize what that does to a person’s health and psyche.

“As long as the crisis of unsheltered homelessness persists, I urge you to recognize stable 24-7 encampment as a practical necessity and a legal right,” Wood said.

“I would urge the park board to be courageous, and in whatever bylaw it implements, put in a provision that says the general manager must designate an area for stable 24-7 encampment within six months or a year, unless such an area has been put forward by other government entities.”

Added Wood: “Now that would bring people to the table, that would start a conversation.”

Those were just some of the voices on the topic of a sanctioned site. The voice that wasn’t heard was that of the police, who favoured an injunction be sought to clear Oppenheimer Park.

That position was based on the assaults, sexual assaults, a homicide, arsons, along with the existence of bicycle “chop shops,” drug use, overdoses and seizure of a variety of weapons at the long-running tent city.

Police responded to 33 calls in June to Strathcona Park, which is 18 more than officers responded to in June 2019, when there was no encampment. Residents who live near the park, including Coun. Pete Fry, told commissioners the encampment is dangerous.

“There have been trip-line booby traps, bear bangers shot at park users, threats with weapons, swarmings, verbal accosting and physical assaults directly as a result of the encampment,” Fry said.

Does he support a sanctioned homeless camp?

“I don’t support permanent encampments in any park, not just Strathcona Park,” he said, although pointed to a possible opportunity to pursue a model that faith-based groups have employed in Washington State and Oregon and set up small sanctioned camps in parking lots.

The city, he added, doesn’t have a suitable property that could handle the footprint needed to safely house hundreds of homeless people, let alone ensure such a sanctioned camp would be run properly.

Never mind the cost and where the money would come from, as deputy city manager Paul Mochrie told the park board in September 2019 when discussing the Oppenheimer Park tent city.

“It is not possible for us as a city to manage an uncontrolled outdoor site, safely and effectively,” Mochrie said at the time.

“The costs are significant. They are equal to or greater than indoor shelters on a per space, or per bed basis. And of significance, the province to this point has been very clear that they will not provide funding or other support for sanctioned encampments.”

This week, Fry and others praised the provincial government for the addition of temporary modular housing buildings, the recent purchase of hotels and the ability of government to house more than 300 people from Oppenheimer Park.

That said, the efforts still haven’t been enough to prevent the existence of unsanctioned homeless camps, with Vancouver’s neighbours to the south in Seattle and Portland conceding to reality, although Mochrie said U.S. sanctioned camps have had mixed results.

“Those measures have not been effective in either supporting individuals to transition to housing — their results have either been the same or, in some cases, quite a bit worse than indoor shelters — nor have those measures had an impact on mitigating the growth of street homelessness in those cities,” Mochrie said.

Meanwhile, in July 2020, the Strathcona camp continues to grow and neighbours continue to complain and police continue to be called and the song remains the same — senior governments need to provide more housing.

Or build a sanctioned homeless camp.