Maple Ridge is continuing to tread a legal tightrope by allowing places for homeless people to camp in city parks, while doing its best to limit the effects.
Council gave third reading Tuesday to changing its parks facilities bylaw, allowing tents to be pitched between 7 p.m. and 9 a.m., after which they must be removed.
But coinciding with that is a section that specifically bans any camping in Memorial Peace Park, Haney Nokai Park, or Raymond Park. Camping is also banned from playgrounds, skateboard bowls, tennis courts, sports fields, stadium or picnic shelters.
Council is making the change in response to a November 2015 B.C. Supreme Court decision allowing people to camp in Abbotsford city parks. That decision also allowed cities to limit camping hours from between 7 p.m. to 9 a.m. Requiring people to dismantle their tents after 9 a.m. was seen as a way to balance the needs of the homeless with those of residents.
Maple Ridge Coun. Bob Masse, though, said there’s no need to rush to follow the court ruling.
“Don’t get sucked into jumping into this,” he said. “Don’t let the province do this to the community,” adding the city is trying to solve what is a provincial issue.
“I’m very reluctant to move on this before our neighbours do.”
Abbotsford, Victoria and Kamloops, however, have already made such changes.
Masse said that a letter from the Pivot Legal Society, asking if Maple Ridge had changed its bylaw, was sent to all Metro Vancouver cities, and that the city doesn’t have to change its bylaw immediately.
“It’s just a bad thing that’s being forced on us by the courts because of the inactivity of the higher levels of government, provincial and federal.”
“I just think we have to draw the line somewhere and say no,” Masse said.
“We’re not, as municipal governments, going to try to make up for all the failures of provincial and federal government by doing something that’s bad for the people who need help and bad for the neighbourhoods that have the parks in them. It’s just not right. At what point do we say, ‘We’re not going there?’ It’s just a ridiculous non-solution that’s being sort of imposed on us.”
He compared the city changing its parks bylaw to last council’s decision to change its bylaw to allow medical marijuana facilities in the Agricultural Land Reserve. With Maple Ridge one of the first to do so, medical grow op companies came here first and other cities didn’t face the issue.
Mayor Nicole Read doesn’t want to make such a change to the parks bylaw, but said it was needed to keep another permanent camp from forming.
“I find it deeply offensive that, as a taxpayer … that we live in a province that has absolutely failed to deal with this situation.”
It’s not just a homeless problem, it’s a social crisis, she said before the 4-3 vote.
“The jig is up for the province. They have been playing a game with shelters for a long time.”
Read also said she expects the courts soon will allow people to remain in their tents past 9 a.m.
“So we’re going to start to see permanent homeless camps all over the province.”
She said the issue shouldn’t be a partisan issue, “but whatever party you vote for in the 2017 election, take a really strong look at what their initiatives are around education, youth mental health, homelessness and addiction.”
The focus has to shift from shelters to housing, she added.
Read said another homeless camp will form in Maple Ridge if housing can’t be found for the 26 people remaining at the temporary shelter on Lougheed Highway when it closes on June 30.
With B.C. Housing giving up on converting the Quality Inn to supportive housing because of public protest this spring, it’s been difficult to find places for those remaining at the temporary shelter.
So far, 20 people there have been given rental supplements so they can live in market housing while the remainder are being referred to the Salvation Army Ridge Meadows Ministries or other shelters.
The temporary shelter opened in October to allow the city to dismantle the Cliff Avenue tent city that stood all last summer.
“If we can’t find suitable accommodation for those 26 … we are going to end up with a camp in the city this summer. We will. We just will. That’s the reality,” Read said.
People are already camping around town, and staff are saying the bylaw change is needed to prevent another permanent camp, she added.
Read, along with Couns. Gordy Robson, Kiersten Duncan and Craig Speirs, voted in favour of the parks bylaw amendment, with Couns. Tyler Shymkiw, Corisa Bell and Masse opposed.
Robson said he voted reluctantly in favour, saying he didn’t want a homeless camp set up in Memorial Peace Park.
“I don’t know if it’s going to work or not, but this is the best legal advice we can get.”
Requiring tents to be taken down every day will prevent a large, permanent camp from developing, he added.
The bylaw amendment, however, requires a fourth reading at a later date, at which the voting could change, although that doesn’t happen often, Masse added.
“We haven’t changed the bylaw. So it’s not a done deal at this point.”
Changing the bylaw to allow camping doesn’t solve the issue, said Shymkiw.
“Where are we at? We are headed towards more tent cities.”
There’s no simple answer, he added, saying people can’t be forced into treatment or work camps.