A Vancouver bylaw aimed at preventing more homeless camps in parks is being applied inconsistently and forcing people to remain outside in miserable weather, says an advocate for homeless people.
The bylaw is being enforced by park rangers every day at Crab Park, where around a dozen people have been tenting since May 23. The park board bylaw was passed a year ago, and allows people to put a tent up overnight in city parks — but says tents and other belongings must be removed from the park by 8 a.m.
Park board general manager Donnie Rosa hopes enforcement of the bylaw will prevent another large tent city from forming, after an encampment at Oppenheimer Park that lasted from 2018 to 2020 and another at Strathcona Park in place from June 2020 to April. Both camps had problems with violence and crime, but camp supporters said they also provided a community to people who had nowhere else to go.
Today, both parks remain blocked off behind high blue fences.
On Sunday, in the midst of a heavy rainstorm, Fiona York says park rangers told people at Crab Park that they couldn’t set up tarps to wait out the wet weather after they had taken their tents down.
“There was no way to shelter from the rain,” said York, who has advocated for people living in encampments in Oppenheimer and Strathcona Park.
The park is on the waterfront near the Downtown Eastside. Daytime drop-in spaces, like the nearby Evelyne Saller Centre, are not an option for many of the people who sleep outside, York said. That’s because they fear their belongings will be taken by city sanitation crews who regularly patrol the neighbourhood, accompanied by police officers, to move people off East Hastings Street and other parts of the Downtown Eastside.
“The rangers’ response would be like, ‘Oh well you can go to a temporary shelter,’ but then they're also being told that if you leave your stuff, it's going to get taken and you have to be in attendance,” York said. “So it's impossible to follow all of those things. You’re left standing in a downpour with nothing, or leaving and having nothing to come back to.”
In November, The Tyee spoke to Bill S., a man who had lost his tent and all his belongings when he went to the Evelyne Saller Centre to get breakfast. Advocates say homeless people regularly lose all their belongings in the street sweeps, including tents, bedding and clothing.
York said the bylaw should be interpreted to allow people some sort of daytime shelter in parks in bad weather.
In 2008 and again in 2015, the BC Supreme Court struck down city bylaws — one in Victoria and the other in Abbotsford — that prohibited people from erecting overnight shelters in parks. The rulings did allow municipalities to require people to pack up their tents each day.
The Tyee contacted the park board for this story, and Jeannine Guérette, a communications staffer, wrote that the bylaw allowing camping “should only be seen as a last resort, and is not intended for people to set up structures in perpetuity.”
“We will continue to work with our city and provincial partners to address the root causes of homelessness, and outreach teams are in the community daily to help connect people with various services.”
Guérette could not confirm whether or not park rangers had prevented people from using tarps during the day.
The City of Vancouver has refused to set up a permanent sanctioned encampment spot, instead preferring to house people living in large camps in shelters or hotels and supportive housing, which can include single-room occupancy hotels — a type of housing many tent city residents say they are trying to avoid.
Homelessness rose during the COVID-19 pandemic, and with hotels empty because of the drop in tourism, the province bought or leased many hotel and hostel properties in an effort to provide housing for unhoused people. Some of the properties the province bought were used to house residents of Strathcona Park.
But York says some people were missed in that rehousing effort, and are now living in Crab Park.
Andrew, who has been tenting in Crab Park, said he was living in Strathcona Park because of a bad experience at a homeless shelter. He said living in the park was more peaceful and he didn’t have to worry as much about his belongings being stolen.
But Andrew said he somehow always seemed to miss the meetings with outreach workers who came to Strathcona Park in April to connect people with housing. York says she has a list of 25 people who are in a similar situation.
Laura Mathews, a communications staffer at BC Housing, says 296 people from Strathcona Park were moved indoors between October 2020 and April, and outreach workers spent hundreds of hours in the park meeting with people to connect them with housing.
Outreach workers continue to go to Crab Park to try to connect people living there with housing, Mathews said, and park rangers working in Strathcona Park continue to hand out information about how to connect with housing outreach teams to interested people.
Mathews added that registration for indoor housing has never been halted, and no lists have ever been closed.