Communities struggle with tent cities

Mayors and councillors at UBCM compare strategies and seek help with campers setting up in parks and green spaces

Community leaders from around the province compared notes on dealing with homeless camps at the annual municipal convention Monday, as they await a federal strategy to improve access to low-cost housing.

While housing affordability for people receiving $375 a month housing allowance from provincial income assistance is a growing problem, people who are evicted for their behaviour or refuse to submit to shelter and supportive housing rules are the most difficult to deal with.

The province recently announced a $500 million fund to construct low-cost rental housing around the province. A forum at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Victoria heard that mental health and addiction services also need to be expanded to offer people a way off the streets.

Chilliwack has identified 18 different camps around the community. Mayor Sharon Gaetz said she frequently hears from residents concerned about property values affected by camping in parks, despite efforts to clean up needles, feces and garbage that litter public spaces.

Surrey Coun. Dave Woods said his city has camps springing up every night, and he expects it is only a matter of time before a large one is established as happened in Victoria, Abbotsford and Maple Ridge in recent years.

The Victoria camp set up on provincial land next to the downtown courthouse and it took 10 months, a court injunction and more than 100 hastily acquired transitional housing spaces to shut it down.

One of the lessons learned from Victoria was to act quickly before camps grow large, said Greg Steves, a senior official with the B.C. government.

Dominic Flanagan, executive director of B.C. Housing, said despite its struggles, the province is seen as a leader in its “housing first” approach to dealing with mentally ill and drug addicted people. And while the public objects to “low barrier” shelters, they are needed to begin helping people get off the streets, he said.

Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read said B.C. Housing’s plan to buy a motel to convert to transitional housing was a good response to that community’s tent camp. But strong public opposition and that of both local MLAs resulted in it being cancelled, and construction of a purpose-built facility has delayed efforts to move people from shelters.

Lawyer James Yardley said efforts to shut down Abbotsford’s camp were complicated by a lack of clarity about how homelessness and shelter beds are defined by the courts. Abbotsford camp representatives continued to advocate for it after they were housed, and some campers refused any indoor accommodation.