Debate ensued between Parksville city council and staff over a report on homelessness and overnight camping in public spaces.
During a regular council meeting on Monday, Nov. 19, council discussed the topic as a Committee of the Whole.
“There has been increasing public concern about social issues affecting the city, particularly with respect to homelessness in public spaces throughout the city,” said Keeva Kehler, City of Parksville administrative services/corporate officer. “The city has a parks and open space bylaw which regulates temporary shelters being used by individuals for overnight accommodation in public spaces.”
The City of Parksville allows individuals to camp on city property from 7 p.m. to 9 a.m.
Bylaw officers do daily patrols to enforce individuals take down their tents by 9 a.m.
During discussion, councillor Adam Fras asked staff why the removal of individuals’ possessions was not happening in public spaces.
“One of the things I’ve been hearing from the community, is people questioning why the bylaw officers are not asking people who are staying in shelters overnight, why are they not cleaning up and removing all of their belongings as they’re asked to in the bylaw? Fras asked.
City CAO Debbie Comis told council the city is not permitted by law to remove people’s possessions.
“We can’t actually take people’s possessions from them,” Comis said. “If they leave and the belongings are there for a period of time where it becomes obvious that they’re not coming back to get them then they are removed by the cleaner, but if they go across the street to the Salvation Army or to use the washroom and come back, that’s not considered abandoning your items.”
Comis added that if the land being occupied is public land, like the Jensen Avenue lot that has recently been an area used by homeless campers, then they are allowed to be there and there is no limit on how long they can stay.
“If they’re with their property and the property hasn’t been abandoned then that’s perfectly legal for them to do, it’s public land,” Comis said.
Staff said if items are abandoned in public spaces for a period of time where it becomes obvious that the owner is not returning to retrieve them, then they are removed and thrown away.
Currently the city is spending $250 each time their contracted hazmat cleaners enter the Jensen Avenue site to perform a cleanup.
Coun. Doug O’Brien said he believes the city’s parks and open spaces bylaw should be enforced more vigorously.
“Shelters must be removed completely by 9 a.m. each morning and individuals cannot leave debris litter or other items behind. That’s what the bylaw reads and that’s how I feel the bylaw should be enforced,” O’Brien said. “I think what’s happened is the individuals at this particular site (Jensen Avenue) have taken advantage of the situation in a very big way. It’s not so much why aren’t we enforcing this or putting an amendment to this, my question is how can we come up with a better solution because we are being taken advantage of.”
As a suggested solution, O’Brien proposed designating the Jensen Avenue lot as a key sensitive area like the Community Park, which prohibits overnight camping.
“I really do believe this would stop the camping all together,” he said.
Comis said although the city does have the ability to declare certain areas as key sensitive areas, they can’t just declare any area as sensitive. She said the Community Park was declared a key sensitive area because it falls within the Wildlife Management area and it’s a main tourist attraction in the summer and large economic draw for the community.
“I would be really concerned that if we expand our sensitive area definitions throughout the community that we would be in jeopardy of having the whole thing challenged by activists or Pivot (Legal Society) or any of the other legal societies that are on the side of people who are homeless,” Comis said. “We are in a fine balancing act right now where we are doing our best to manage a situation where the courts are not on our side, the courts are on the side of those who are disenfranchised in our society.”