The Friends of Foster Park made a last-ditch effort this week to have tenting prohibited in the space they've worked to develop for decades, but Parksville city council did not heed their request.
Meanwhile, steps toward a facility for the homeless took a step forward with money from the provincial government to develop a "comprehensive" proposal.
Council gave final approval to the city's parks and open spaces bylaw on Monday night, which sets out where and when the homeless can pitch a tent for the night. Prohibitions are now in place for Community Park, Springwood Park and the city's well fields, but overnight tenting will be allowed in all other city-owned parks and open spaces, including Foster Park.
"We helped develop and build Foster Park," resident Doug Courtice told council before the final vote Monday night at city hall before a standing-room-only crowd. "We continue to have concerns about the repercussions should children, students and seniors encounter dangerous scenarios like needles and trash."
Courtice said the Friends of Foster Park want to help the city with its homelessness challenges.
"We feel a long-term solution must be found instead of moving the problem from one place to another," he said. "We wish to assist the city in finding a long-term solution."
Courtice said a petition calling for a ban on overnight camping in Foster Park with more than 1,000 signatures will be presented to council at a future meeting.
Mayor Marc Lefebvre said that might be helpful for the city as it seeks funding from senior governments.
“The petition will go a long way to help us (seek funding),” said the mayor.
Lefebvre also said members of the Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness (OTFH) are currently meeting with individual councillors, gathering input on the issue. The mayor last week said he favours action that would see the city donate taxpayer-owned land for some kind of undetermined facility, but he said he did not have a motion to that effect ready yet and was unclear how it would be accepted by the balance of council.
On Monday, the OTFH said it received a $10,000 grant from the provincial government to help develop “a comprehensive proposal to determine what purpose-built housing project would best suit the needs of the local homeless.”
The task force also provided comment on the mayor’s preference to supply taxpayer-owned land.
“As you can imagine, we’re very pleased the city appears to be moving forward in arranging for a parcel of land to be provided for a building,” said Sharon Welch, co-chair of the task force and the executive director of Forward House Community Society. “We will now work with our partners to come up with a thorough proposal for a purpose-built building. Today we have moved further down the path to provide housing and dignity to those in our community who need it the most.”
The task force news release said the proposal will be completed by the end of June and then presented to city council and the public. The task force said a new facility could contain permanent shelter beds and supportive housing, along with mixed-use commercial enterprises.
“Everyone deserves a place to call home and we know to put a roof over someone’s head is the first step to help them access the variety of supports available that can help improve their life,” Parksville-Qualicum MLA Michelle Stilwell said when she handed over the $10,000 to the task force. “It’s great to see so many organizations come together in support of one goal – to improve the lives of the homeless and those at risk of homelessness in our communities.”
The task force said after extensive local research including community forums, it has determined “pursuing a comprehensive purpose-built building in partnership with B.C. Housing is the best opportunity to begin to address the needs of the homeless and the Oceanside community as a whole.”
Back at the council meeting Monday night, Coun. Sue Powell was the only vote against the parks and open spaces bylaw.
“This isn’t a camping-in-parks issue, it’s a homelessness issue,” said Powell, who also said she does not support the concession won by the Friends of Foster Park earlier this month adding a provision to the bylaw that tenting not occur within 40 metres of the playground in Foster Park.
Coun. Kirk Oates disagreed.
“I don’t believe this issue is about homelessness at all,” he said in relation to the bylaw in front of council for approval on Monday night. “It’s about the City of Parksville regulating the use of parks in its bylaws.”
The mayor continued to make references to the courts and his concern the city could face expensive legal battles if it puts wider bans on overnight accommodation in city-owned spaces.
This week, the City of Victoria began looking at a proposal to ban tenting in four smaller, so-called “pocket parks.” The City of Parksville has a number of parks in residential neighbourhoods that could fit that description.