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Overnight success: doors could open for legal overnight camping on certain City lands

Timothy Schafer Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
By Timothy Schafer Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
July 9th, 2024

The constitutional right for people to take shelter at night in Nelson is being proposed to be balanced with the ‘broader community’s interest in ensuring that any such camping is done in an appropriate and non-disruptive manner.’

In response to the numerous tent communities occurring across the city — including recent occupation of City Hall’s front lawns and other City-owned green spaces — a bylaw amendment to the Parks bylaw is being considered by City council.

Brought forward by City staff, the bylaw amendment will create clearer regulations regarding where unhoused (homeless) individuals may shelter overnight. Currently, the bylaw prohibits camping in all City parks and public lands — which would not be upheld by B.C. Courts.

Coun. Leslie Payne had trouble understanding the particulars of the parks bylaw amendment.

“So, if I became homeless this week and I have a tent that is 10 x 10 (feet) I can, as a resident of Nelson, go and sleep overnight in my 10 x 10 tent in a park, as long as I am out of the park by 9 a.m.?” she asked.

City manager of regulatory services Sarah Winton said as long as those parks are not identified in Section 3.11 — the same spaces where use of controlled substances is prohibited —  as well as the front lawn of City Hall.

The amendment also allows belongings, including the temporary shelter, to be stored in an area not to exceed 36 square feet.

“Does that mean I can pack everything up and put it neatly there so that I can return the following night to do this all over again?” Payne asked. “So then I don’t have to cart my belongings with me all day long?”

“Yes, but it needs to be packed up,” Winton explained.

Belongings must be packed up and moved by 9:30 a.m. the following day.

On the street

Homeless people Nelson have set up tent encampments on public lands over the past few years. Although this has created challenges for some Nelsonites the root of the problem is a lack of affordable housing and supportive services, areas where the City claims it has engaged the Province.

“Still, the City expects that it will still have an unhoused population for some time and thus it is appropriate to regulate where such individuals may set up temporary shelters going forward,” Winton pointed out.

It is a constitutional right for people to be able to take shelter at night, meaning B.C. Courts do not allow municipalities to ban camping and sheltering in all public spaces. Instead, municipalities can prohibit camping in certain areas and limit the period of time of any such camping to overnight hours.

Bite with the bark

Coun. Rik Logtenberg wondered about the parameters around enforcement of the bylaw.

“So, do we have a sense of what are going to communicate to the public as to what their role is in this and what they can expect in terms of enforcement?” he asked. “If someone sets up camp in one of the non-permitted areas, what can they expect and how should they respond if they felt the need to?”

Winton said one of the reasons for the bylaw was to give bylaw officers some mechanism to move people out and along.

“It would be the public’s responsibility, because we are complaint-based, to register a complaint with the City and that goes to our bylaw (department) and they would go and check it out,” she said. “They would be proactive in making sure people are packed up at 9 a.m. and that they are moved away at 9:30 a.m.”

The Bylaw department will do that on their own, she added, and the bylaw amendment gives them the authority to do so.

Logtenberg said it would be helpful to have a really good communication to the public about this.

“So, if somebody feels somebody is violating the bylaw then they understand what they need to do, and can do,” he stated. “And on the other side, to understand that some encampments are totally legal so back off if you want to call bylaw on something that is actually legal.”

No tent zone

The proposed bylaw designates specific areas that do not allow for camping — the same spaces where the City does not allow illicit drug use (already defined in the Parks Bylaw).

The spaces were previously identified based on their frequency of use by children and proximity to schools.

In addition, the proposed bylaw would add the lawn around City Hall to the list of prohibited areas for both illicit drug use and camping.

“Beyond these spaces, while camping is generally prohibited in all City parks and other land, the bylaw carves out an exception for unhoused individuals to temporarily shelter if they satisfy requirements in terms of location and time of day,” Winton explained.

With regard to time of day, the proposed bylaw would only allow temporary shelters to be in place from 7 p.m. to 9 a.m.

Winton added that a strong bylaw wasn’t needed for building relationships with the street culture.

“But it really helps give our bylaw (officers) sort of a tool for approaching people and keeping the lines of communication open,” she said. “I don’t know if anyone saw how bylaw engaged with any of the folks that were outside of City Hall, but it was fairly heartwarming.”

The homeless people couldn’t stay outside of City Hall, she said, but bylaw officers worked closely with them to move them out. Months of communicating and speaking with people staying outside, answering questions and talking to them, resulted in the dissolution of the encampment.

“This (amendment) keeps that relationship going,” she said.

The bylaw amendment passed third reading in City council on July 2.

Categories: General

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