Cape Breton police taking gentle approach to tenting in public places

·3 min read
Cape Breton Regional Police say they try to avoid laying charges when they find people living in tents in public places. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)
Cape Breton Regional Police say they try to avoid laying charges when they find people living in tents in public places. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)

Police in Cape Breton Regional Municipality say they are not going to crack down on people pitching tents in public places the same way other places have done.

Instead, police in Sydney are reaching out to try to help people get the shelter services they need, Chief Robert Walsh said.

"We are aware that there are some individuals that are living in tents in various areas in the CBRM," he said following a board of police commissioners meeting on Monday. "We are trying to assist these people by giving them the appropriate direction and support, directing them to the homeless shelter and to our other partner agencies ... to help them get off the street."

Last week, Halifax regional councillors voted to allow camping in four public parks after a year in which people living near several parks complained about sheds and huts on public property, leading to the dismantling of the shelters.

Some people desperate for shelter in Sydney have been getting tents from the Ally Centre of Cape Breton due to the shortage of affordable housing, executive director Christine Porter told Mainstreet Cape Breton last week.

They have been pitching them in public parks, vacant land along the harbour and sometimes in the centre's downtown parking lot, she said.

Norma Jean MacPhee/CBC
Norma Jean MacPhee/CBC

The centre sees up to 20 people a day come in looking for help with shelter, Porter said.

"Lately, it's been people that I have never seen before that are coming and saying, 'I have nowhere to stay' and it's really, really hard right now to find a place," she said. "There's a big shortage of housing out there."

People can stay temporarily at the nearby homeless shelter on Townsend Street, but Porter said that is not an option for some people and there is a time limit on stays.

"People aren't finding places in those 30 days, so they're turning to tents, really, and some people just can't stay at a shelter for many, many reasons."

The centre has been giving away tents and sleeping bags with funding from the community health board, which gets its funding from Nova Scotia's Department of Health and Wellness.

The Ally Centre has handed out 15 tents since March, Porter said.

"However, we don't have any left right now and the need is still there and growing."

'You will see tents popping up'

Those advocating for people without homes are concerned that the problem in Sydney could become as acute as it has been in Halifax, Porter said.

"I don't know about tent cities, but you'll certainly see tents in parks," she said. "There were tents right in Wentworth Park, which is right in the heart of the city, just last summer."

Walsh said there is no bylaw against camping in public places in CBRM and police are trying to avoid laying charges.

"We're trying to get assistance to these folks, because they are quite often marginalized and they just need some help," he said.

Police have received very few complaints, Walsh said, and callers are mostly concerned for people's health and safety.

One complaint involved a tent in Rotary Park, but others have involved wooded rural areas and graveyards, he said.

"We're very fortunate that we don't have a great number of people living in this way, but it is concerning that we are starting to see the numbers rise," Walsh said.

Coun. Eldon MacDonald, chair of the police board of commissioners, said public camping has been a small problem in the past, but he hasn't received any calls lately about parks.

Police are able to work with public health and other agencies to try to find a balance between helping individuals and making public parks safe for all users, MacDonald said.

"That's the best interest of our community," MacDonald said. "It's the best interest of those people that need those supports."

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