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Vancouver park board approves overnight camping in parks, green spaces

Revised bylaw unlikely to lead to clearing of Strathcona Park homeless encampment
The Strathcona Park tent city is likely not to be affected by park board’s revised “parks control bylaw.” Photo Mike Howell
Park board commissioners voted 4-3 Tuesday to upgrade a bylaw that once enacted will legally allow homeless people to do what they’ve been doing for decades in Vancouver — sleep in a park overnight and leave in the morning.

But for those who refuse to leave, like the dozens of people camped out since last month in Strathcona Park, the new version of the “parks control bylaw” will test how far the board is willing to go to clear an encampment.

So far, it appears the tent city will remain, at least as far as Shauna Wilton, acting park board general manager, indicated on the first of two nights of meetings to consider the bylaw revisions.

“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 commissioners Monday.

“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.”

More than 200 tents are pitched in the far end of Strathcona Park. The encampment borders a parking area on Raymur Avenue, where people also live in recreational vehicles, vans and cars.

The changes to the bylaw were made to put the park board in line with a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that gave homeless people the constitutional right to sleep overnight in a park.

But the park board also made a series of significant additions to the bylaw, including setting criteria that limits homeless people to sleep in 26 per cent, or 867 acres of a possible 3,320 acres of park and green space.

The board hasn’t identified specific parks that would fall under the 26 per cent, but the criteria prevents 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.

The bylaw also requires homeless people to only occupy a three-metre by three-metre space and not to leave a tent, or structure, unattended. People also must pack up in the morning and leave a park or green space.

Whether that will be enforced by park rangers, who work closely with police, was not made clear during debate, with many speakers suggesting it was an impossible task.

What was made clear by commissioners, including board chairperson Camil Dumont and many of the dozens of people who spoke at the meetings, was that addressing homelessness was not the park board’s mandate.

“We need help — we need help from the city, we need help from the province, we need help from the federal government to provide wraparound services to build into the system solutions for these problems,” Dumont said.

“We can’t do it alone, as the park board. We can be willing partners in the conversation and I understand us to be that.”

Dumont joined commissioners Stuart Mackinnon, Dave Demers and Gwen Giesbrecht in supporting the revised bylaw. All had different reasons for their support, but emphasized the need to have the bylaw upgraded to adhere to the B.C. Supreme court ruling.

“We are here not because any of us want to be, but because of a court ruling we need to be,” Mackinnon said.

“Our current bylaws have been deemed an infringement of individual rights under our Charter by the courts, and as such, need to be changed. For some, change is unacceptable. But as an elected official of government, I have no choice but to ensure our bylaws are in compliance with the courts, the laws and the constitution.”

Added Mackinnon: “We are also here because of the failure of senior governments to recognize for too long the epidemic of homelessness. Many people who wrote said this is not park board’s responsibility, and I agree — the park board should not have to deal with this social problem.”

Demers: “We’re not pretending to be solving the root causes of homelessness here. That does not belong at park board. It’s not our mandate. This bylaw is simply a tool to help us deal with the situation the best way we can.”

Giesbrecht said the revised bylaw in no way addresses “how the people in this city — way, way too many of them — are displaced and experience homelessness.” She said she made her vote with a heavy heart, knowing the bylaw gives the park board legal authority to dismantle communities of homeless people.

But Giesbrecht said she will never grant an injunction to remove homeless people.

“On those conditions, I will vote in support of these bylaw amendments, but not if they’re used as a tool to throw people out of their communities that they’ve established,” she said.

“We call them parks, but really they are the land of Vancouver.”

Commissioners Tricia Barker and John Coupar, who voted against the staff recommendation to upgrade the bylaw, said they worried such a move would encourage more people to sleep in parks.

“I feel strongly that our mandate is to look after parks, and make sure we have clean and safe parks for everybody,” Coupar said.

“I think it’s the wrong thing for the Vancouver park board to do, and I’m hearing a lot in the community that people are concerned about it, and what it will lead to across our city.”

Barker: “I believe the bylaw doesn’t solve problems that we’re having in our parks today. Listening to all the people speak and reading all the emails, talking to people on the street, people aren’t feeling safe in our parks right now.”

Comm. John Irwin also voted against the revised bylaw after failed attempts to defer the decision to another meeting in September so more consultation could be done with homeless people and Indigenous groups.

“We have left the bylaw renewal because of COVID, and because not quite getting on it when we could have, and so I don’t see that a few months delay will matter that much,” Irwin said.

The city conducted a homeless count in March but has yet to release the findings. In March 2019, volunteers counted a record-breaking 2,223 homeless people. Coun. Jean Swanson suggested to commissioners Monday that number had increased by another 200 people.