Changes to a local bylaw will allow Saanich staff and police to clean up sites like this one in Cuthbert Holmes Park. Black Press File.

Saanich council clamps down on campers’ garbage

Measures promising to clean up Saanich’s Cuthbert Holmes Park are earning applause from the local community association, but a spokesperson says the municipality must do more if it wants to preserve the park.

“We are pleased that they [council] are taking steps forward,” said Vera Wynn-Williams, vice-president of the Gorge-Tillicum Community Association, after councillors all but ratified bylaw changes that allow Saanich to seize, remove and dispose of discarded property from local parks.

The amendments give Saanich police the authority to ask overnight campers to leave their campsites the next morning. At the same time, they are not likely to impact individuals “merely seeking temporary overnight shelter.”

Saanich, in other words, wants to crack down on more permanent settlements, without wanting to appear punitive towards individuals who might be genuinely homeless – a distinction difficult to enforce, as police conceded.

Saanich needs to do more, said Wynn-Williams, who called for Saanich to ban all camping in the park by designating it an environmentally sensitive area in following the example of Victoria, which does not permit temporary shelters “in paths, playgrounds, sports fields, flower beds, long grass, areas being used for an event, cemeteries, or anywhere that is considered environmentally sensitive.”

The amendments – which still require final approval later this month – emerged after growing concerns about the actual and potential effects of illegal camping in Cuthbert Holmes Park, popular among long-term campers because of its proximity to the amenities offered at Pearkes Recreation Centre and Tillicum Centre.

No firm figures exist, but local estimates peg the number of people camping in the park at around a dozen. During a recent tour of the park, this reporter identified three campers at two separate sites. While the park has long drawn people struggling with homelessness, it has also attracted criminal elements, who have used the park for drug production and the storage of stolen property.

Regardless of their respective backgrounds, local community leaders like Wynn-Williams fear that the combined presence of these individuals creates a social safety problem in the neighbourhood, while threatening the environmental integrity of the park already dealing with the effects of the McKenzie interchange project. Wynn-Williams is especially concerned about individuals, who have set up devices for heating and cooking purposes, a recipe for disaster. “We are afraid of the whole park going up [in flames],” she said. “It’s not matter of if, but when.”

Saanich currently prohibits camping in public parks without exception, but chief administrative officer Paul Thorkelsson says Saanich does not strictly enforce this bylaw, instead connecting those camping in local parks with local resources and encouraging them to move on.

Many of the root causes behind camping in public parks, such as homelessness and drug addiction, are “systemic and multi-faceted” in nature and outside local jurisdiction, he said in a memo to council. “These root causes are therefore not something local governments are equipped to address on their own.”

Thorkelsson said the amendments represent an incremental approach that gives Saanich additional tools in keeping with its “current compassionate approach.” Stronger measures would require more extensive consultations.

Wynn-Williams questioned Saanich’s approach. “It’s not compassionate to let people live in Third World conditions,” she said.

Several councillors signalled openness to tougher measures. “I’m disgusted by what I see,” said Coun. Colin Plant, in pushing for a review of the new measures.

Thorkelsson urged patience as Saanich may need more than 90 days to see the effects of the pending changes.

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