While the B.C. Supreme Court has ruled a complete ban on overnight sheltering in parks violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it is still possible to forbid homeless camps on a site-by-site basis, one B.C. community has determined.
In Langley City, a second site is about to become off-limits, with overnight camping banned in Rotary Centennial Park off 208th Street and Fraser Highway.
A proposed ban was given preliminary approval by council during their June 10 meeting, who passed it unanimously with no discussion.
After the high court ruled against a ban on overnight sheltering in parks, a number of municipalities adopted bylaws that allow camping in parks, but set limits on how long individuals may use the parks for overnight stays, as well as prohibiting overnight stays in specific parks that are determined to be “inappropriate” for that purpose.
When Langley City council banned overnight camping in Douglas Park last year, it noted the park was next to a school.
In the case of Rotary Centennial Park, issues cited include the park’s proximity to high density housing “including low-income families with children who play in the park” as well as the large number of Syrian refugees who live in the neighbourhood and are described as “vulnerable with limited English language skills.”
It was welcome news to those who use or live near Rotary, but one of the people who camp there said the ban will mean one less safe place for her to sleep at night.
Josey, who did not want to give her last name, said Rotary was a preferred place to camp because it is away from traffic, which meant homeless were less likely to attract unwelcome attention.
She has been evicted from the park more than once.
“Anywhere there’s any kind of popular gathering place [for homeless] they will ban it,” Josey said.
Rather than moving homeless people around by imposing camping bans, she would like to have a place where camping is allowed.
“Tell us where to go and we’ll go there,” Josey said.
Josey gave her age as 61 and estimated she has been homeless for four years.
“I was a businessperson,” she said.
“[Now] all I do every day is move my stuff and try to stay ahead of the bylaw [officers],” Josey related.
“The average person is just one paycheque away from where I am.”
Doreen Mercer, a disabled woman in a wheelchair whose apartment faces the park, said she has made as many as 80 calls in a year about bad behaviour by homeless people.
“We’ve got one guy who comes around here and he trips out something fierce,” Mercer recounted.
“I’ve seen him do a strip tease and run around naked. We’ve got kids here. They don’t need to see it.”
Mercer said her husband, who is blind, uses the park every day and she acts as his spotter, telling him where the homeless are so he can avoid them.
“He almost tripped over a lady who was crashed on the sidewalk,” Mercer described.
A hypodermic syringe has been found in the children’s play park, and the public bathroom has been closed, with massive concrete blocks installed in front of the doors, because homeless people were sleeping in it, she said.
A water fountain was taken out, and residents of her housing complex have had their garbage gone through with waste strewn all over.
“I realize they’ve got to have somewhere to stay,” Mercer continued.
“Get a big hunk of land, fence it off, put in a picnic shelter, cement benches and tables and let them have their tents out there.”
Peter Sinclair, a park regular, said the homeless haven’t bothered him, but their numbers can be substantial.
“I’ve seen, like, 20 of them. They got their little pup tents. The police will shoo them away, then, two days later, they’re back,” Sinclair related.
“You do see some needles occasionally.”
Isaac Dobal, who lives nearby, said he often sees campers sleeping in the park when he walks through it on his way to work in the morning.
He hasn’t had any problems.
“They’re always good,” Dobal noted.
“I personally think if they’re not littering, if they’re not bothering anybody or making noise [there’s no reason to move them].”
Another park regular, Dennis St. Pierre said he has “no problems” with the homeless, but he does look carefully before he sits on the grass to avoid needles.
A mother with young children, who lives near the park, reported finding needles and drug paraphernalia.
“I’m not anti-homeless, just anti-drugs in the park where children are playing,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified.
“Not all homeless are malicious, but you can’t pick and choose.”
A second mom was pleased to hear about the impending ban.
“That would be great,” said the woman, who also insisted on remaining anonymous.
“My five-year-old found a needle,” she said.
“I feel bad for the homeless people, but I don’t want it here.”
A visitor who often babysits her grandchildren said she can hear them yelling at night, but during the day she has witnessed others trying to tidy up.
“There’s one homeless guy with a dog, who is out here cleaning up,” she said. “He’s such a sweet man.”
Francis Cheung, Langley City chief administrative officer, said the costs of homelessness to the City, in terms of cleanups, repairs and other expenses is “still quite significant.”
“We have, unfortunately, seen an increase in the number of homeless people in the community,” Cheung said.
In a report to council, City community safety manager Dave Selvage said in 2018, the City spent $85,000 on homeless-related costs. In the first three months of 2019, it spent nearly $14,000.
According to the 2017 homeless count, 206 homeless people were living in the Langley area.
Selvage said the current number is likely higher by 50 to 100 people.
Last year, there was a jump in the number of reports to the City about homeless people, from a little more than 2,700 in 2017, to a little more than 4,000 in 2018.
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