A homeless camp set up at Ed Macgregor Park will remain as long as necessary, says Mayor Maja Tait.
Sooke parks only allow public access from sunrise to sunset, but what’s happening in Ed Macgregor Park is a special case, because the issue is more complex than simply telling the current occupants to pack up and leave.
Under a B.C. Supreme Court ruling, the district cannot tell the homeless population to leave unless they have somewhere else to go. To forbid the camp would go against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Supreme Court rulings supersede bylaws, which gives Sooke’s homeless population the right to stay put.
“This is a priority item, and we want to find a solution,” Tait said.
“Ed Macgregor Park is the only accessible park in Sooke with running water. We are still in the middle of a pandemic, and when it comes down to it, one of the main pieces of advice given by health authorities is to wash your hands. We do have Broomhill Park, but Ed Macgregor is the better option of the two.”
The district can’t afford to house the Sooke homeless population out of pocket, it needs financial help from senior governments. This is a challenge, though, because to receive government funding, the shelter must be an indoor facility, and the district has limited options.
“This has always been a challenge in Sooke, even before the pandemic. We have spent years trying to find something as a shelter here, so it’s back to that conversation of if not here, then where?” said Tait.
“We must provide the next space for them to move, but even if we were to try to set up something outdoors, we just don’t have the resources right now.”
The camp has stirred up controversy among residents, who’ve expressed their thoughts by commenting on stories published by the Sooke News Mirror on social media. Tait said she has also been receiving mixed feedback from residents.
“This is temporary, it is not a good solution, and we are actively working with the province to find an alternative,” Tait said.
Tait hopes B.C. Housing will announce projects that will include Sooke. An affordable rental project was announced for Sooke recently, which will have rentals ranging from shelter rates to market value. However, it likely won’t be completed until 2021.
“I sincerely thank SEAPARC for stepping up in April to help us take care of our vulnerable neighbors who had no place to go when COVID-19 hit,” Tait said. “It was always intended as a transitional stabilization unit, and we now have to find a longer-term solution that will help bridge us to the opening of 49 shelter rate housing units that will be available in the next 12 to 18 months.”
Sooke councillor and SEAPARC chair Al Beddows said the issue falls within the hands of the province, as Sooke is too small of a community provide the necessary resources to house the homeless population.
“If you want change, create a crisis, and this is what has happened here. Fourteen people are effectively holding the park hostage, and the people who can solve it are with B.C. Housing,” Beddows said.
“The people staying at the camp are not bad, and not many people are inconvenienced – but the concept of a homeless group camping at Ed Macgregor detours people from using the park, and I am a little concerned about the upkeep. We need to try to find out something that works for all of us, and I expect a resolution in a little while.”
The camping in parks issue expands throughout Greater Victoria. People rallied in Victoria last Thursday demanding Victoria council rescind a bylaw that limits overnight sheltering.
Hundreds of homeless people in Victoria were moved into temporary shelters during the pandemic, though many remain in parks. The rally called for an end to the bylaw, which forces unhoused residents to pack up their belongings every morning and set up again each night.
That bylaw hasn’t been enforced during the COVID-19 pandemic, but unhoused community members want to see it permanently dismantled. A poster for the event calls the bylaw a waste of resources and a “justification for the displacement and harassment of unhoused residents.”
– with files from Nina Grossman