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How and why each Vernon council member voted on controversial camping in parks bylaw

Back row, left to right: Coun. Delver Nahal, Coun. Catherine Lord, Coun. Scott Anderson, Coun. Juliette Cunningham. Front row, left to right: Coun. Bob Spiers, Mayor Akbal Mund, Coun. Brian Quiring.
Image Credit: City of Vernon
June 28, 2017 - 2:33 PM

VERNON - Despite some disagreement, a majority of Vernon council decided earlier this week to enact stricter rules for homeless people camping in public parks.

There was plenty of debate at Monday’s, June 26, council meeting as the City’s local representatives grappled with the complicated issue.

The amendments — which have been vetted by the City’s lawyers to ensure they would stand up to recent case law around sheltering in public parksrequire campers to remove overnight shelters from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The move reverses an earlier decision from just last month when a majority of council voted 6-1 not to impose any time limits at all. Coun. Scott Anderson, who brought the motion forward, was the only one at that time to vote for the change.

Mayor Akbal Mund said the earlier decision was made before council had all the information.

“No one had talked to RCMP. It was just something that was brought out of the wood work and said ‘hey let’s do this.’ Well, let’s get some information before we do it. Let’s find out where people will go, how we’re going to manage this, what are the legal ramifications. We needed all that information.”

With all that information in hand, four councillors changed their minds and decided to vote for amendments to the Parks and Public Spaces bylaw that will only allow homeless people to erect temporary shelters from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. Individuals will only be permitted to camp overnight when local shelters are at capacity.

HOW THEY VOTED

Mayor Akbal Mund- voted for the amendments

Mund said he recently visited the camp in Polson Park, accompanied by RCMP. He remarked on the overall cleanliness of the area and lack of garbage. He said he never felt threatened and that the situation is not what “social media leads you to believe.” He said many of the campers were from the North Okanagan and all of the ones he spoke to said they were homeless because of the high cost of housing.

Having received more information about rules, regulations, policies and legal implications, Mund decided to vote in favour of restricting camping to the hours of 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. He said that time frame is in line with the morning opening hours of the Upper Room Mission, which provides people with a place to go during the day.

Coun. Bob Spiers - voted against the amendments

Coun. Spiers did not support restricting the hours homeless people can camp in parks.

“I don’t think it’s going to solve the problem. In fact, I think it will create another problem,” Spiers said.

He predicts that campers will take their shelters down and simply move to park benches or other areas during the daytime.

“All they’re going to do is move from one spot to another,” Spiers said.

He believes there has to be another solution, but admitted he has no easy answers.

“It (time limit) is not going to make it any safer for the people, or more friendly for the people that occupy the park,” Spiers said.

Coun. Juliette Cunningham - voted against the amendments

Cunningham, who has been vocal about homelessness and the need to show compassion for marginalized individuals, said she has been accused of not caring about the general public.

“That’s absolutely not true,” she said. “I am just trying to find balance for a marginalized group of people that doesn’t often have a voice.”

Previously, Cunningham said she was against time limits because they would create more hardships for the homeless, and would potentially damage positive relationships between bylaw officers and campers.

Instead of imposing time limits and making things more difficult for the homeless, Cunningham said the City should develop a poverty reduction strategy. She said council should be putting as much energy into lobbying the provincial and federal government for increased funding as they are for amending the parks bylaw.

Coun. Catherine Lord - voted for the amendments

Coun. Lord said she has not noticed a reduction in people visiting Polson Park. She noted that while some people have said they are uncomfortable on the boardwalk area where the majority of tents are located, many park patrons continue to use it.

She felt the city should be doing more to get people housed. She said senior levels of government have downloaded a lot of responsibility on local municipalities, and said “they’re not going to fix it which means it’s our problem and we have to find some way to deal with it.” She said if the City tells people they can’t camp in parks, they should be looking at ways to increase the number of shelter beds in the community. 

Coun. Brian Quiring - voted for the amendments

“There’s no easy solution,” is how Coun. Brian Quiring summed up the issue.

He also visited the Polson Park camp with the RCMP, and said most individuals probably could have broken camp fairly easily from what he saw. Contrary to Mund’s remarks about most people being local, Quiring said many were from elsewhere and were not locals who had “fallen on hard times.”

He pitched the idea of restricting camping to Polson Park only, since the majority of people are already there. 

“You can see people are taking ownership of these specific areas, like names nailed onto trees,” he said.

His idea to prohibit camping in all other parks except for Polson was not endorsed by council due to the uncertainty of how that policy would stand up in court.

Coun. Scott Anderson - voted for the amendments

Coun. Anderson brought forward the initial motion last month for time limits on camping in public parks. He voted in favour of it then, and voted in favour of it this week. He said the intention is to prevent tent cities from forming, and to balance the needs of all park users.

“People have real concerns about safety and taking their kids to the park,” Anderson said. “People are not unreasonable for having that concern.”

Coun. Dalvir Nahal - voted for the amendments

Coun. Nahal supported the amendments because she believes it will help families and other park users feel less intimidated about visiting the park.

“I think sometimes you have to listen to what your constituents say. I think this is a happy medium,” she said.

Like Coun. Lord, Nahal also wanted to see the City do more to help those without a home.

“At some point, we have to take initiative and do something about it,” Nahal said.

She wanted her colleagues to consider funding 10 or 15 beds from now until September. The average cost of a shelter bed is $425 a night, Nahal said.

Coun. Cunningham rejected that idea, saying if the City starts paying for shelter beds, the province and federal government will only download more responsibilities on the municipality.

“I think that is a very dangerous road,” Cunningham said. “That’s not our responsibility. It’s the responsibility of the senior levels of government to provide adequate housing.”


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