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A closer look at Vernon's approach to homeless camps

FILE PHOTO: A tent set up in a Vernon park.
May 26, 2017 - 8:00 PM

VERNON - The topic of homeless individuals setting up shelters in parks has been a topic of heated discussion this week after Vernon council opted to let people set up shelters if there is nowhere else for them to go in the community.

Specifically, council suspended the enforcement of its Parks and Public Spaces bylaw in circumstances when local shelters are full.

That means the City will officially ignore the part of its parks bylaw (#5057) that says: A person must not at any time set up or occupy any camp, or tent, or any other form of temporary shelter or sleep in a public place. 

It should be mentioned that city bylaw staff have already been taking this approach for some time, and here's why. 

It all goes back to a pivotal court case from 2008. 

READ: Victoria (City) v. Adams, 2008

The nine defendants — all of them homeless — argued it was unconstitutional to stop people from erecting shelters on public property, and the judge agreed. At the time, the judge noted there were more than 1,000 homeless people living in Victoria, compared to 104 regular shelter beds.

“Thus hundreds of the homeless have no option but to sleep outside in the public spaces of the City,” states the judgement. 

A later court judgement defined the situation even further. It states that Victoria’s parks bylaw cannot be enforced “when the number of homeless people exceeds the number of available shelter beds.”

READ: Court of Appeal, Victoria v. Adams, 2009

The ruling affected municipalities everywhere, although not right away.

In Vernon, for example, there was sufficient space in local shelters up until a couple years ago. As long as beds were available, the City could enforce its no camping rules. That all changed when Vernon’s homeless population spiked. According to the manager of protective services, shelters have been full for the past two years.

The City can’t legally stop people from erecting shelters in public spaces, but it does have some options when it comes to restricting how, when and where camping occurs.

Various municipalities have taken different routes, such as restricting certain parks from overnight sheltering or limiting camping to a certain time period, such as 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. in Victoria, 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. in Abbotsford, and 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. in Kamloops.

Vernon decided — in a 6-1 vote — not to put any time restrictions on camping. That means people don’t have to dismantle shelters during the day.

Council’s reasoning included these points:

  • It is unreasonable to make someone pack up their shelter and belongings in the morning, only to go down to the shelter and find out there is still no shelter space available
  • City currently has no storage lockers for homeless to keep their belongings, meaning they would have to pack them around all day
  • The possibility of damaging positive relationships between bylaw staff and campers
  • The possibility that restricting encampments during the daytime would result in people setting up in other parts of the city, such as the downtown core or on private property

The lone voice against setting time restrictions was councillor Scott Anderson. He felt that imposing time limits would:

  • Prevent tent cities from establishing
  • Keep parks cleaner
  • Balance the needs of the homeless with those of other park users

That last point about balancing the needs of the homeless with those of other park users is the central point of debate now, just as it was in 2008 in Victoria v. Adams.

The justice, quoting another judge, pointed out that the issue stemmed from “an inevitable conflict between the need of homeless individuals to perform essential, life-sustaining acts in public and the responsibility of the government to maintain orderly, aesthetically pleasing public parks and streets.”

As municipalities wade into these new waters, one thing remains clear: the number of homeless individuals in Vernon continues to outpace the availability of shelter beds and shows no signs of slowing down. This is something Vernon, and most cities, will be grappling with for a while. 

You can expect policy amendments to come out in the near future on how Vernon might regulate sheltering in parks, specifically the size of camps. 

To contact a reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston or call 250-309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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