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Moving Strathcona Park tent city ‘doesn’t solve problem’ of homelessness in Vancouver

Park board GM says revised bylaw not aimed at dismantling encampment in Strathcona Park
The Strathcona Park homeless camp continues to grow in size, with more than 200 tents occupying a large portion of the green space. Photo Mike Howell
A new version of a bylaw that aims to limit the number of Vancouver parks and public green space where homeless people can legally sleep overnight is not designed to dismantle the city’s newest and biggest homeless encampment at Strathcona Park.

That was made clear by Shauna Wilton, the acting-general manager of the park board, at a meeting Monday in which several disappointed Strathcona residents outlined their concerns over the state of the growing tent city.

“This [revised bylaw] was not targeted at Strathcona specifically, but is something that we need to do broadly, knowing the impact to all of the park system from homelessness and sheltering,” Wilton told park board commissioners.

“I think what this bylaw will do is to give our staff a tool for ongoing discussion with those in the encampment, in terms of trying to manage that space.”

She noted the long-running Oppenheimer Park encampment was cleared after an emergency order from the provincial government related to COVID-19. The subsequent CRAB Park tent city was shut down after the Port Authority was granted a court injunction that was enforced by police.

“The reality we’ve seen now is there is a homeless population in Vancouver that requires a place to be,” Wilton said.

“Now that we’ve had encampments in Oppenheimer, on the Port lands [at CRAB Park], and certainly now in Strathcona, moving them again doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.”

The present version of the parks control bylaw does not permit people to remain in parks overnight, or to erect temporary structures. That bylaw, however, has not been enforced because of a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that gives homeless people the constitutional right to sleep in a park overnight.

The changes to the bylaw seek to strike a balance between honouring those rights and the needs of people who regularly use the city’s parks, including the Strathcona residents who spoke Monday to park board commissioners.

Commissioners are expected to vote on the revised bylaw Tuesday night, after running out of time Monday night to hear from all 88 people who registered to speak.

Many who spoke Monday identified as Strathcona residents and a majority said they supported updating the bylaw, but were disappointed nothing will immediately be done to address the encampment in their neighbourhood park.

Collectively, residents told commissioners the encampment, which has grown to more than 200 tents, has been the scene of assaults, drug use and fires.

It’s also served as a centre for bicycle “chop shops” and stolen property, making the park unsafe for residents and young families who depend on the green space for outings, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the same time, residents such as Katie Lewis said she understood the plight of homeless people and that addressing homelessness is not the mandate of the resource-stretched park board.

“I just don’t feel that this should all fall onto your laps,” said Lewis, vice-president of the Strathcona Residents’ Association, who urged commissioners to seek help from senior governments.

The mother of young twins said she’s heard from many neighbours representing a wide spectrum of views on the encampment, which started in the park last month after people were forced to leave CRAB Park’s tent city on the waterfront.

“The one thing I am really hearing loud and clear is that Strathcona Park is not set up for a large, long-term encampment,” she said, noting it represents 80 per cent of Strathcona’s green space and has shut out residents.

Ted Bairstow lives across the street from Strathcona Park and said he was more concerned about the tent city Monday than when he put his name on the list a few days ago to speak to the revised bylaw.

“Last night, someone broke into my car, took the door opener to my garage, opened the garage and stole two bicycles from it,” Bairstow said.

“I have no idea whether there’s a direct link to the encampment in the park, but it’s hard to believe that there isn’t.”

The proposed changes don’t identify which parks or green space would be open to overnight camping, but park board staff estimated it would amount to 26 per cent, or 867 acres of a possible 3,320 acres.

That 26 per cent is based on a long list of criteria that would prevent temporary shelters to be erected near schools, playgrounds, sports fields, beaches, community centres, golf courses, the seawall, environmentally sensitive areas, gardens, horticultural displays and picnic areas.

Enforcing the bylaw will be challenging, with commissioners hearing Monday that 85 per cent of park rangers’ workload already involves monitoring and managing homeless shelters in parks.

In October 2019, rangers did an audit of all parks to assess and identify temporary homeless shelter activity in parks. In addition to 107 counted at the time in Oppenheimer Park, they counted a total of 405 occurrences within 116 parks.

Housing advocate Fiona York urged commissioners to pause further discussion of the proposed changes to the bylaw until the pandemic is declared over. She said homeless people were not consulted about the changes, which call for people to have to pack up their gear after each night they sleep in a public space.

“During COVID, the recommendation [from Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry] is to shelter in place, and that’s what is being provided right now by not having a bylaw in place that allows for daily displacement,” York said.

“We know about the health effects of daily displacement. It’s talked about by many public health officials in terms of COVID, but also there’s the mental, emotional, psychological trauma and impacts of being displaced on a daily basis.”

City councillors Jean Swanson and Pete Fry also spoke to commissioners, with Swanson echoing York’s concerns about daily displacement, saying “it’s cruel to make people pack up and move every day.”

Fry, a longtime Strathcona resident, said he supported changes to the bylaw but believed commissioners were unfairly forced to bear the burden of failures of other orders of government, despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s proclamation two years ago that housing is a human right in Canada.

“We still haven’t seen any real meaningful delivery on that promise,” Fry said.

“And despite the investments from the provincial government — at a level of commitment that we haven’t seen in years — we’re still barely making a dent on delivering mental health and addictions supports, or the housing needed to deal with the crisis that’s unfolding here on our streets in Vancouver, but also across our province.”

Fry, though, said the tent city at Strathcona Park has become dangerous for residents, particularly those who have visited the encampment in an attempt to retrieve their stolen property.

“Which is obviously a risky proposition for all parties involved,” he said.

“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.”

Commissioners meet again Tuesday night at 6 p.m. to hear from the remainder of registered speakers. If commissioners approve the revised bylaw, it will go before them again at a future meeting for enactment.