The Friends of Foster Park packed the public gallery Monday night and won a concession from a city council struggling with bylaws related to homeless people setting up tents in the city.
About 150 people came to the meeting, the largest and most vocal crowd in these chambers since the local school board debated the closure of schools in 2014.
In the end, council decided to add a clause to its new Parks and Public Open Spaces bylaw that will prohibit overnight camping in Foster Park within 40 metres of the children’s playground. Outside of that restriction, if council gives final adoption to this bylaw, tenting will be allowed from 7 p.m. to 9 a.m. by the homeless in Foster Park and all other city parks, except Community Park, Springwood Park and the areas near city wells close to Despard Avenue.
“The bylaw must be designed to balance the rights of all residents, including those who are homeless,” said the city’s director of administrative services, Keeva Kehler.
As Kehler has written in her reports and verbalized in meetings related to this issue, the city cannot adopt an outright prohibition on overnight accommodation on people who are homeless using public lands to sleep or erect structures. The city can, however, adopt a bylaw that prohibits overnight accommodation in “key sensitive areas” and permit it only between 7 p.m. and 9 a.m.
A B.C. Supreme Court ruling in October of last year provided some clarification for municipalities on this issue and pointed to a section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
That part of the Charter describes people’s right to life, liberty and security of the person. In essence, the ruling does not allow municipalities to outright ban homeless from tenting in public spaces, but cities can create bylaws with some restrictions.
“At the moment, we have nothing to enforce,” Kehler said on Monday, adding that some people may have “preconceived notions” about homeless people.
“We can’t assume all homeless people will cause problems in our community,” she said.
The raucous debate Monday night included admonitions from Mayor Mark Lefebvre to the crowd.
“We were elected so it’s our turn (to speak),” said the mayor. “This is a very important topic so you better sit and listen.”
In a letter to the mayor and council the day after the meeting (copied to The NEWS), resident Gord Wilson took issue with the mayor’s comments.
“Most of the people attending the meeting had the same response with your condescending tone when you told us to be quiet and that you were elected to make the decisions with council,” Wilson wrote. “You seem to forget that we the people of this great city of Parksville elected you and all the councillors.”
Friends of Foster Park president Doug Courtice told council he has a petition with 280 signatures, with this wording: “We, the undersigned, support Friends of Foster Park and petition the mayor and council of Parksville as follows: that the City of Parksville provide a space other than any park within its boundaries for transient and/or homeless people before the summer tourist season begins.”
The bylaw that was on the table Monday night prohibited tents and overnight camping within 10 metres of playgrounds, sports fields, tennis courts, picnic shelters, gazebos, water parks, public washrooms, ornamental gardens or horticultural display.
A motion by Coun. Leanne Salter to extend that to 40 metres — just for Foster Park and just in relation to the playground — passed unanimously.
Salter also introduced a motion directing staff to find a safe location on public land and investigate the purchase of a shelter so bylaw officers and community services can respectfully suggest a safe, dry, short-term area to tent or sleep that has running water and toilet facilities. The motion failed after a tie vote, with Salter, Coun. Al Greir and Coun. Teresa Patterson in favour and Lefebvre, Coun. Mary Beil and Coun. Kirk Oates opposed (Coun. Sue Powell did not attend this meeting).
The mayor also received some sharp retorts from the crowd and Coun. Salter when he suggested most of the homeless in the area are tenting outside the city limits.
“Most of the homeless here live outside Parksville in the bush,” said Lefebvre.
Salter said she works with homeless every day.
“They are not transient — they live here,” she said. “Help has to come from us…even starting with shipping containers (modified to living spaces).”
Salter, council’s liaison to the Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness, seemed to express frustration with that group’s progress. “We can talk about it the next 10 years or more and nothing is going to happen,” she said.
See Tuesday’s edition of The NEWS for more on this story and other news items from city council’s meeting Monday night.