The head of a Saanich community association praises plans to prevent overnight camping in certain parks, but hopes the community will also enforce the pending prohibition.
“We are very pleased,” said Gabe Epstein, president of the Gorge-Tillicum Community Association, when asked about plans by Saanich to change its parks management and control bylaw.
The proposed changes officially codify the rights of homeless individuals to camp in public places, if shelters are unavailable as per a previous court ruling, but also prohibit overnight camping in Cuthbert Holmes Park among other parks and public facilities in Saanich in following comparable legislation in the City of Victoria.
Saanich, in other words, proposes a double move: align its bylaw with an existing court ruling, but also limit the spaces, where homeless individuals can camp.
The proposed bylaw changes identify environmentally sensitive areas, playgrounds, sports facilities, as well parks zoned natural park (P4N) and conservation park (P5) as areas off-limit to what the bylaw calls temporary overnight sheltering. This language would not only include Cuthbert Holmes Park, but also Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary and Rithet’s Bog Nature Sanctuary.
But if this list applies to large parts of Saanich, no neighbourhood appears more pleased 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.
Pending any surprises, council will give the proposed amendments three readings Monday, with ratification to follow at a later date.
For Epstein, the next step will be to enforce the coming prohibition on overnight camping in Cuthbert Holmes Park.
“It will take on-going vigilance by police and parks staff, and that they will keep an eye on the park,” he said.
Saanich two months ago amended the same bylaw to give authorities (Saanich Police and Saanich parks staff) the power to seize, remove and impound the chattel (private property) of individuals from Saanich parks. Saanich initiated those changes at the time to discourage permanent settlements in Cuthbert Holmes Park, while tolerating overnight camping, which remains for now technically illegal.
Under the earlier amendments, Saanich police had the authority to ask overnight campers to leave their campsites the next morning. At the same time, staff had said at the time that they were not looking to impact individuals, who were “merely seeking temporary overnight shelter.”
Saanich, in other words, wanted to crack down on more permanent settlements, without wanting to appear punitive towards individuals who might be genuinely homeless – a distinction difficult to enforce, as police conceded at the time. The pending changes appear to have abandoned this distinction and appear as an escalation.
The prohibition, if approved, would not apply to Regina Park, the current site of an encampment of more than 70 tents, as the park bears the zoning of P4 — Recreation and Open Space. Saanich continues to search for a solution to their presence following a special council meeting Thursday. According to Coun. Colin Plant, it drew 28 speakers and about 100 people.