British Columbia·Analysis

Not in my park! How B.C. mayors are handling homeless campers

Holiday hotspot Parksville is one of many B.C. cities struggling to handle a growing number of homeless people in the wake of legal precedents that stop cities from ejecting overnighters.

‘What do you want me to do? Put a sign out at the entrance to Parksville: Don’t come here?’ asks mayor

Vancouver city park rangers have special training and a station at a local city park, from where they will work with the homeless in parks and try to connect people to needed services. (Christer Waara/CBC)

Holiday hotspot Parksville is one of many B.C. cities struggling to handle a growing number of homeless people in the wake of legal precedents that restrict the ejection of overnighters.

Mayors across the province are bracing for the annual onslaught of ramshackle tents as the snow melts and shelters close, while trying to make sense of new court rulings that protect people with no place to call home.

Over the past few years, high-profile tent city disputes have led to anger, hatred and even the spreading of chicken manure on one Abbotsford camp.

The incident spawned a human rights complaint, and an eventual B.C. Supreme Court ruling in October 2015 that rebuked the city for ignoring people's Charter rights to 'safety and security.'

Now, mayors are left scrambling to fund new shelters, calm public outcry and clean up after indigent campers.

For many municipalities, this is one of the most divisive items on their council agendas.

A homeless camper during a 2017 snowfall in Vancouver. (David Horemans/CBC )

Parksville mayor Marc Lefebvre says some locals don't want a shelter at all.

"I've had people say to me 'Don't let anybody come to town!'" said Lefebvre, who won't kick bench campers out of city hall on frigid days.

"Well what do you want me to do? Put a sign out at the entrance to Parksville and say: if you are mentally ill; if you are poor; if you haven't got a place to live, don't come here?!"

Not in my park

Parksville, like many B.C. cities, has set as many limits as it can, including a time limit for overnight tenting — from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. and exemptions for two main parks, including the main seaside park that hosts summer tourist events.

But there's still criticism. Allowing homeless campers to use smaller, less central parks, like Foster Park, infuriated 150 residents who crowded city hall last April, demanding campers at least stay 40 metres away from the popular merry-go-round.

"It was all in an uproar. It was just hellacious," said Lefebvre, who admits people remain frustrated with campers who linger all day.

In December, another campsite near a city-owned estuary trail needed a hazmat team to go in after a city staffer got stuck with a used syringe.

Anger in Maple Ridge

Fear of such scenarios caused backlash, in Maple Ridge where residents rallied hard against much-needed shelter proposals.

Protesters in Maple Ridge took to the streets to rally against converting a Quality Inn into a homeless shelter. (CBC)

Cliff Avenue campers accused bylaw officers of slashing their tents.

"There is a real struggle in that city for where vulnerable people are to go," said D.J. Larkin a housing advocate from the Pivot Legal Society.

On Feb. 17, the province promised $11-million toward 80 affordable housing units on 228th Street, so the debate will continue.

Vancouver tents left standing

Vancouver's approach to homeless tenters in parks, on sidewalks and viaducts has been different again.

The city recently hired a ranger team to manage homeless issues in a city park, adjacent to a school.

Winter tents were left standing, after the 2009 Adams court decision, which protects people's right to shelter in harsh weather.

That decision in turn stemmed from a tent city camper, who broke legal ground fighting the City of Victoria.

For almost a year, a tent city remained on the provincial courthouse grounds in Victoria, until deemed hazardous and dismantled as residents were relocated.

A playground is planned for the site now, but Mayor Lisa Helps is looking for bigger solutions and better federal funding.

Bigger Solutions

"We should not be talking about people living in tents in Canada in the 21st Century." she said, pointing out that government investment per Canadian in affordable housing has fallen from $113 in 1989 to $58 in 2014.

A homeless person sleeps out of the rain on a Robson Street sidewalk in downtown Vancouver. (David Horemans/CBC)

The Victoria mayor is following the lead of social housing trailblazer — Sam Tsemberis.

The New York psychologist did the unprecedented.

He asked people what they needed, then provided 242 apartments to chronically homeless people in 1992 — no questions asked.

The project doubled the success of any other city effort to keep people under a roof and out of city parks — a tent all sides of this debate could easily get under.

This camper lives full-time within several blocks of a school in downtown Vancouver and often has to repair his structure when it gets hit by soccer balls. (Christer Waara/CBC)
Federal investment in affordable housing per Canadian has fallen from $113 in 1989 to $58 in 2014, says Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps. (CBC)