Victoria council is asking staff to update a parks bylaw that impacts those living in temporary shelters across the city.
A report from the city manager recommended a number of changes to the Parks Regulation Bylaw such as limiting the maximum size of shelters allowed, requiring a four-metre buffer to prevent the spread of fire and infection, and banning open flame appliances.
Currently, staff estimate 275 people are living outside in Victoria. According to the report, the number of people sheltering in Victoria’s parks has more than doubled between June and August, a residual effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing opioid crisis, which, in May, attributed to a record number of deaths across the province.
Coun. Sharmarke Dubow said the number of people living outside in Victoria was “manageable,” but voiced concerns about warmth and cooking for people as the winter months loom. Coun. Sarah Potts raised concerns about a lack of concentrated spaces for social service providers and harm reduction workers to be able to find people sheltering outside and raised the idea of a communal tent.
In May, the city suspended enforcement of a bylaw that prohibits sheltering in parks during the daytime. The city manager’s report states that the suspension caused an “entrenchment of shelters, increased accumulation of possessions and increased damage to public parks.”
Council approved a motion asking for people sheltering in parks to be limited on the maximum size of their shelter, and for restrictions on open flame appliances and combustible materials. Councillors also approved a recommendation to create a buffer around areas where sheltering is prohibited, such as parks and schools, such as South Park Family School, an elementary school located across from Beacon Hill Park.
The changes are temporary and are to be repealed 30 days after the final extension of the provincial state of emergency.
But council did ask for some permanent changes, including a prohibition on sheltering in community gardens and horticultural areas, as well as parks that serve as the primary play spaces for local schools, such as MacDonald Park, South Park, Robert Porter Park and David Spencer Park.
Council also removed Centennial Square from a list of prohibited sheltering areas. The square was recently emptied of tents after the city ordered the relocation of homeless campers Sept. 1. Victoria Police conducted an undercover drug trafficking operation in the area that led to 18 charges and 15 arrests.
Staff called for more bylaw services too, noting that between 2019 and 2020, there has been a 50 per cent increase in calls for bylaw services and the average number of cases per officer has increased by 80 per cent. Council approved five permanent bylaw officers who would replace shifts being covered by CRD officers, costing the city $165,000. Staff will be directed to budget $491,000 for bylaw services in 2021.
Council also asked staff to report back by Sept. 17 on options for providing managed access to showers, washrooms and temporary shelter for up to 60 people at Royal Athletic Park instead of Central Park.
Coun. Marianne Alto said she thought having 60 people in one park was too many and that she would have supported the amendment if it was in addition to Central park instead of rather than. Dubow agreed with Alto, adding that he worried the city wouldn’t be able to control the park if there were that many people sheltering there.
“We don’t want to create more problems trying to solve a problem,” he said.
While the city will seek funding partners, council approved spending up to $40,000 from its Financial Stability Reserve for an engagement program with people sheltering in the city’s parks. That engagement will be facilitated by the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness.
The committee-approved motions will come to council for a final vote next week.