Bylaw changes prohibiting overnight camping in certain parts of Saanich came into effect Tuesday after council ratified changes to the municipality’s parks management and control bylaw Monday, and earmarked more funds towards the camp at Regina Park.
The changes officially codify the rights of homeless individuals to camp in public places, if shelters are unavailable as per a previous court ruling. But they also prohibit overnight camping in Cuthbert Holmes Park among other parks and public facilities in Saanich, following comparable legislation in the City of Victoria.
Saanich has now aligned its bylaw with an existing court ruling, but also limited the spaces where homeless individuals can camp.
The bylaw changes identify environmentally sensitive areas, playgrounds, sports facilities, as well parks zoned natural park (P4N) and conservation park (P5) as off-limits to what the bylaw calls temporary overnight sheltering.
This language means that Cuthbert Holmes Park, Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary and Rithet’s Bog Nature Sanctuary would be off-limits to campers.
While these changes affect large areas of Saanich, no neighbourhood has been more supportive than the Gorge-Tillicum area, where residents living near Cuthbert Holmes Park have long complained that individuals – some homeless, some not – have damaged the park through their various activities, while creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.
The park near the McKenzie interchange project has become a long-term favourite of campers because of its proximity to amenities offered by Pearkes Recreation Centre, Tillicum shopping centre and the surrounding area.
The changes do not impact Regina Park, the site of a tent city that sprung up in May.
Much of the earmarked contingency funding will flow towards additional policing, but additional spending on other items including a sanitation station that opened up Tuesday could end up raising the total cost to $950,000. Depending on events, the final figure may be even higher.
Some 75 individuals currently camp on the site in defiance of an eviction order issued June 8. Police last week arrested, then released Chrissy Brett, one of the camp leaders, following a confrontation with authorities over a provincial fire order. Some camp residents, for their part, have accused authorities of harassing them, and using fire safety as a round-about way to dissolve the camp, and advocates for the camp have argued in an opinion piece published elsewhere that Saanich is “fighting a losing battle” by putting money towards the camp.
“Instead of working towards solutions and acknowledging that tent cities exist because of a housing crisis – not as an act of defiance – it is pouring money and resources into policing the camp and the area,” wrote Marilou Gagnon, an associate professor at the University of Victoria and president of Harm Reduction Nurses Association, and Ashley Mollison with the Alliance Against Displacement, in the Georgia Straight.
Tent city are not “risky” and “[fighting] them is not the answer,” they wrote. “It is not a good use of public money and sadly, it only serves to ignite anger, fear and hate toward people who experience homelessness.”
Neighbourhood residents, meanwhile, have blamed the camp for a spike in crime throughout area, and called for its dissolution, having launched a change.org petition that calls Saanich to shut down the campsite.
“It’s time for [the] District of Saanich [council] to enforce the laws and bylaws and shut down the illegal [tent city] at Regina Park. In addition to shutting down the Regina Park Tent City, measures should be put in place to prevent these “cities” from setting up near any residential neighbourhood in the future,” it reads on the site.