Vancouver should have fought homeless camp in court, park commissioner says

Questions over how Vancouver Park Board will enforce overnight camping in city parks

A Vancouver park commissioner says the city’s unwillingness to go to court over the previous Oppenheimer Park homeless camp has “set a tone” that’s laid the groundwork for a current, growing encampment.

Non-Partisan Association commissioner John Coupar made the comments on CKNW, a day after the Vancouver Park Board passed a controversial bylaw to permit the homeless to shelter in parks overnight, provided they clear out the following morning.

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The bylaw amendment cites two B.C. court decisions — one in Victoria and one in Abbotsford — affirming the constitutional right of homeless people to shelter on public land.

“I believe that the park board should have actually moved forward with injunction, and then if it did fail in the courts, then we would we would absolutely know,” he said.

“I think we need to push harder rather than just take … an easy road out and say we’re going to change our rules without a clear message, I think, from from the courts.”

Coupar noted that the city was successful in obtaining an injunction to clear a homeless camp from Oppenheimer park in 2014.

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The sheltering in parks bylaw passed early Wednesday morning in a tight 4-3 vote, with the NPA’s two commissioners and COPE’s John Irwin voting against it.

The homeless camp in Strathcona Park has grown to more than 200 tents, since occupants were evicted from Port of Vancouver land last month.

The Strathcona Residents’ Association says it wants the camp removed, citing safety concerns and loss of greenspace during the pandemic.

Campers say they plan to dig in for the long haul and ignore the new bylaw, raising questions about how the new bylaw would be enforced.

In a statement, the park board said the purpose of the bylaw was to “minimize the impacts to parks and the community by limiting the potential for encampments to become established,” and that it was working on an implementation plan.

“Enforcement of the bylaw will also be considered, as well as staffing considerations to support the implementation.”

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said the park board had no choice but to amend its bylaw given the two previous court decisions.

“I also feel for the residents that are all of a sudden finding more people that are living in very tough circumstances in their neighbourhoods where they haven’t been before,” he told the Lynda Steele Show.

“We’re starting to see it around the city. (The) downtown peninsula, where I live, you can visibly see more (homelessness). And I think it’s very disconcerting for people, but also heartbreaking.”

Stewart said the federally-operated Vancouver Port Authority shouldn’t have sought an injunction clearing the homeless from its land given that there was no plan to house them elsewhere.

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He called on the provincial and federal governments to step up with more funding for social housing.

Union Gospel Mission spokesperson Jeremy Hunka said the city’s parks are clearly not the best place for people to be sheltering, but that the issue isn’t going anywhere until there are other alternatives.

“It’s been more than a decade since since the court ruled that people can set up parks in places or in parks overnight, so … I don’t see a whole lot changing,” Hunka told CKNW’s Jill Bennett Show on Tuesday.

“What this illuminates is that we’re in this terrible situation where there’s not even close to enough housing and people are are forced to make decisions between three or four really bad choices.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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