What’s the answer when public parks become homeless campgrounds?


[Residence of a homeless camp are shown in Victoria on Monday, January 11, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito]

Homelessness remains a seemingly intractable problem in Canada and we’ve become somewhat inured to its presence. We step around the homeless on sidewalks, try not to make eye contact with those panhandling at street corners or among cars at busy intersections.

But now, in British Columbia at least, some residents find themselves sharing municipal parks and other public spaces with homeless encampments.

A couple of court decisions have confirmed the homeless have the right to pitch tents in municipal parks if no suitable shelter spaces are available. Now, the B.C. government seems prepared to follow suit to deal with a tent city set up almost a year ago on the lawn of the Victoria courthouse, which is provincial property.

A judge will begin hearing an injunction application Friday that gives the campers, some of whom are apparently protesters and not homeless, until Monday to pull up stakes. However, the hearing on the province’s application is scheduled to run until Tuesday.

Likely anticipating the same arguments used in the previous court cases, the government has said it would allow overnight camping on the courthouse lawn, once it’s been restored from its current mud-pit state, using the same guidelines covering municipal property.

The rulings apply to British Columbia but there’s no reason to think other Canadian cities won’t study them, D.J. Larkin, housing campaigner for Vancouver’s Pivot Legal Society, told Yahoo Canada. Many also have bylaws banning camping in their parks.

“Other jurisdictions should be looking at how these other cases are decided,” said Larkin, who successfully argued on behalf of homeless campers who were being harassed by the City of Abbotsford, about an hour’s drive east of Vancouver.

There are people “sleeping rough” all across Canada, even in the Arctic, said Tim Richter, president of the Calgary-based Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. But the B.C. court victories won on behalf of the homeless there have formalized the practice at least on municipal public land, he said.

“Government has made it easier, more acceptable culturally perhaps,” Richter said in an interview. “It’s something we don’t tend to see outside of British Columbia.”

ALSO READ: Victoria homeless camp faces legal showdown as B.C. looks to clean up site

Certainly B.C. has an apparent reputation as a haven for the down and out, exemplified in this week’s story in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.

It reported two young men who denied money to stay at a North Battleford, Sask., shelter were given one-way bus tickets to B.C. One is heading to B.C. hoping to seek help from relatives there but the other, who reportedly has mental health problems, is headed to Vancouver where he knows no one.

Mild weather, greater tolerance may draw homeless to West Coast

Vancouver City Manager Sadhu Johnson said the West Coast seems to have more homeless people living outside than elsewhere in Canada, whether that’s due to the milder weather, the promise of a more buoyant economy or seemingly greater tolerance.

“Maybe it’s partly related to us being a little more understanding and not trying to boot people out right away kind of thing,” he said in an interview.

A tent city with more than 100 residents sprang up in downtown Toronto on a piece of vacant private land but it was dismantled in 2002 by private security officers with police help. Sean Meagher, executive director of Social Planning Toronto, said he’s not aware of anything similar since then.

Still, many cities have bylaws prohibiting overnight stays in public parks, whether it’s recreational or out of need. The B.C. court decisions in Victoria in 2008 and Abbotsford last year trumped those rules when it comes to the homeless.

In 2009, the B.C. Court of Appeal upheld a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that a bylaw barring the homeless from camping in Victoria city parks when there was no other place for them violated Sec. 7 of the Charter of Rights guarantee to “life, liberty and security of the person.”

The ruling did not give them a blanket right to set up camp but limited it to being allowed to pitch a tent between the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., clearing out after that.

ALSO READ: Abbotsford, B.C. homeless group suing city over chicken manure dump

The B.C. Supreme Court case in Abbotsford, which involved dozens of homeless camped out on a city-controlled parking lot, followed much the same reasoning but gave campers an extra couple of hours in the morning to fold up their tents.

The victory was vindication for the Fraser Valley city’s homeless because they’d been hounded out of different locations by municipal workers, including an incident where chicken manure was spread on the ground and tents destroyed.

But Larkin said the ruling by Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson went further than ensuring a right to camp overnight.

“He found that displacement itself harm, which is really important because it means what we need to do is move beyond a system where we’re displacing people on a daily basis,” she said.

Homeless need more than a place to camp, says advocate

While requiring the homeless to leave in the morning was a necessary compromise, Hinkson’s ruling noted homeless people need more than an overnight camping spot. Being forced to move along makes it harder for them to access services they need and start the process of acquiring permanent housing, Larkin explained.

The Victoria case is slightly different, she said, because the province is asserting its property rights rather than relying on a municipal bylaw.

“Nonetheless the question still remains if the number of homeless people is greater than the shelter spaces available, exactly the same constitutional questions arise,” said Larkin.

Vancouver faced a similar challenge in the summer of 2014 when a tent city grew up in Oppenheimer Park near the city’s poverty-plagued Downtown Eastside. It drew people fed up with living in the neighbourhood’s decaying, bug-infested single-room-occupancy hotels (SROs) and flopping in overcrowded homeless shelters.

The city reacted by quickly adding shelter spaces and promising a cleanup of SROs. Workers, supported by police worked to relocate most of those in the encampment, which had seen sporadic violence and a drug-overdose death. Many local residents avoided the park, the area’s only large green space, while the tent city was in place.

Likewise, the Vancouver suburb of Maple Ridge spawned a homeless tent city that only shrank when local officials opened a “low-barrier” shelter and did some aggressive outreach, said Richter.

An official homeless camp similar to ones set up south of the border in Seattle, which are fenced and include “micro houses,” was not in the cards. Seattle has had trouble persuading many homeless to to leave their camp sites under Interstate 5, probably because they’d need to submit to stricter rules around things like drinking and drug use.

Not surprisingly, people living near the proposed tent-city site were not thrilled.

ALSO READ: Vancouver homeless camp fight: Neighbours are sympathetic until the homeless are visible

Victoria has worked with the provincial government to convert a disused school and a seniors’ centre to house residents of the tent city, if they’ll come.

Johnson said Vancouver aims to create low- and no-barrier shelters.

“You’re hitting on our focus, which is trying to create options for people to have more shelter space, to have a safe, warm, comfortable place indoors that’s acceptable to them,” he said.

Stanley Park a favourite camping spot for homeless

But he admitted that hasn’t stopped people from setting up camp in places like the city’s landmark Stanley Park. Visitors to the sprawling park and park rangers have stumbled across garbage-strewn sites, sometimes containing used needles.

The city’s strategy, said Johnson, is to improve standards for SROs and look for more locations to provide affordable housing.

“I think it’s largely supply,” he said. “There’s not enough oftentimes.”

Long term, the goal of cities is to have enough places available to house everyone in an appropriate space where they can be comfortable and begin addressing their addiction or mental health problems, or just get back on their feet financially.

Tent camps, even if they’re sanctioned, are little more than a Band-Aid, said Larkin, a bridge for people to get access to long-term housing.

Meanwhile, residents should come to terms with the idea they might encounter the homeless camping in their local park.

“I think when it comes to developed parks, that everyone needs to share,” she said. “This is a way to find that balance between people using it for recreation and people who need to use parks for survival.

“As a society we need to stop thinking that it’s normal not to see poverty.”