Prince George city council rejected a staff proposal Monday to designate one or more park areas in the city where homeless people could camp overnight.
Under the proposed bylaw, camping would have been allowed between 7 p.m. and 9 a.m. daily, and people would have been required to remove their tents and other belongings each morning, city manager of public safety Adam Davey told council. B.C. courts have ruled that municipalities can’t prohibit temporary overnight sheltering in all parks or public spaces if there is insufficient housing or accessible shelter space for people in need. But having a designated area for overnight sheltering, “would give the city the lawful authority to move folks on from other areas,” Davey said.
“These proposals will not solve the encampment problem, but it may help us handle some of the issues,’ he said. “It’s like trying to eat soup with a knife, and the province has the spoon.”
Cities like Kamloops and Kelowna use similar models, concentrating the homeless population into designated areas, he said. Another option is a decentralized model, which allows homeless people to camp in smaller groups throughout the community and is used in places like Saanich, which has 75 designated places where overnight sheltering is allowed.
The areas which were considered were: a strip of Connaught Hill Park along Patricia Boulevard; the area already occupied by the Lower Patricia Boulevard encampment; Millennium Park at the corner of George Street and First Avenue; and two sections of Carrie Jane Gray Park, one near the intersection of Highway 16 and 97, and the eastern edge of the park between Del Laverdure Way and 20th Avenue.
The five proposed areas are where the city sees the most evidence of people camping, Davey said. In 2019, the city dismantled “90 significant encampments of two or more structures.” Allowing overnight camping in locations outside the bowl area, away from the city’s social service providers, was considered unlikely to change people’s behaviour, he added.
Prior to 2020, the city’s homeless population was spread out throughout the city, Davey said. However, in 2020 the city saw the formation of larger encampments, eventually resulting in the Lower Patricia Boulevard encampment, named Moccasin Flats by residents of the camp.
In a decision issued Feb. 23, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Simon Coval denied the city’s request for an injunction to remove the remaining residents of Moccasin Flats.
“The city does not have the authority to remove the Lower Patricia encampment,” Davey said. “(And) the city lacks the capacity to manage the encampments.”
The city can’t apply to remove the camp until suitable housing and daytime facilities are in place, he said, something which isn’t expected to happen anytime in the foreseeable future.
The population of the camp dropped down to only a few people over the winter, but has increased rapidly over the summer, up to between 30 and 70 people, he said.
The camp has resulted in numerous calls to police and the fire department, and there have been three significant fires in Moccasin Flats over the past couple weeks, he said.
In 2017, city bylaw services received 155 calls for service for issues like discarded needles, open drug use, panhandling, etc., Davey wrote in his report to council. In 2021, the city received 2,239 calls for service for the same issues.
Davey said the proposed bylaw changes would eliminate the grey area by designating where overnight sheltering is allowed, and what the rules are. However, the Lower Patricia encampment would continue to be a permanent encampment, as long as residents choose to stay.
“What is there is there, and what grows there grows there,” he said.
‘A NEAR-IMPOSSIBLE PROBLEM’
Coun. Frank Everitt put forward a motion to defeat the proposal, saying the city’s problems are bigger than “having a place for people to go.”
Everitt said he was worried that expanding the places for people to camp would only worsen the problems, rather than improve them.
“People needed to hear what we, as council, can do and can’t do,” he added. “We need to do it right. It didn’t get there overnight and we’re not going to solve this overnight.”
Coun. Murry Krause said the proposal wouldn’t likely change anything.
“Where would these individuals go during the day?” he said. “People will make choices. They’ll go to the green space they choose. Our bylaw process is complaint driven. They might get three, four days or even a week before they have to move on.”
The large encampments are dangerous places for the people living there and the those around them, he added.
“I do have concern for the residents of the Millar Addition,” Krause said. “We provide businesses downtown will all kinds of protection… and the Millar Addition residents deserve the same.”
Coun. Garth Frizzell said council is facing “a near impossible problem.”
“We have to protect all of our citizens, housed and unhoused,” he said.
Coun. Kyle Sampson said authorizing one or more camp site could leave the city in a position of responsibility and liability if something, like a major fire, does happen.
“We can’t do it right. We don’t have the staff, or manpower or tools to do it right,” Sampson said. “The City of Prince George is tackling this alone, and we’re taking it on the chin. Where is the province? Where is B.C. Housing? We need to hear from them. Our staff are tapped out, and none of us have come up with any great ideas either.”
Mayor Lyn Hall said there simply might not be a solution that fits within the limits on the city’s mandate and the limits imposed by the courts.
“Staff may not have any more options,” Hall said. “If there is another option for us to employ, I don’t know what it is. We’re not even sure if we can remove the garbage (from the Lower Patricia encampment.)”
‘WE HAVEN’T DONE ANYTHING’
Coun. Susan Scott was the only member of council to vote against Everitt’s motion to defeat the proposal.
Scott said she’s received all the same emails and phone calls other members of council have, and heard the concerns from the community.
She said she couldn’t support decentralizing the camps and spreading the issues even more throughout the community. And while the community should “support and uphold everyone, it’s easier to support and uphold people who want to be helped.”
Coun. Cori Ramsay said she voted against the proposal, but for a different reason. She’d like to see the city try the decentralized model, allowing overnight camping throughout the community.
“The encampment is a product of the lack of housing from the province, but it is also a product of our bylaws,” Ramsay said. “The bylaws make it impossible, if you don’t have shelter, to go anywhere but the encampment. We need to expand it a bit, and go back to that informal decentralized model we had before 2020.”
The concentration of people in the Lower Patricia encampment, and the issues that come with that, are “incredibly unfair to the Millar Addition,” she added.
And while more advocacy and engaging in partnerships is a good thing, “it took 20 years of advocacy to get that First Avenue project,” she said.
“I just feel like we haven’t done anything,” Ramsay said. “If we’re against centralization and against decentralization around the table, then what is the next step?”
BYLAW AMENDMENT TO ALLOW OFFICERS TO SEIZE ABANDONED GOODS
On Monday, city council did vote 6-2 in favour of an amendment to the Safe Streets Bylaw to authorize bylaw officers and RCMP officers to remove personal property obstructing a road or sidewalk. Krause and Ramsay voted against the change.
The owners will have 30 days to collect their property, under the bylaw amendments. After the 30 days, items without value will be disposed of and items deemed to have value will be auctioned off, Davey said.
"This will be our last option," he said. "Prior to 2019-2020, (debris) was removed and disposed of. But the climate has shifted considerably since then. Bylaw staff, at present, do not remove debris."
Because of the court ruling in February, the city doesn't remove items because they might be considered someone's personal property, he said. But the bylaw change will create a process for people to recover their belongings.
The auction sale price will be used to cover the city’s cost to hold the auction and remove and store the property. The property owner will then have one year after the auction to claim any remaining money, after the city’s costs are covered, otherwise the remainder will be forfeited to the City of Prince George.
The administrative processes to manage that will need to be developed before it gets implemented, Davey added.
The bylaw amendment will come back before city council at a future date for final approval.
“The solutions we came up with tonight won’t really change anything,” Sampson said. “We didn’t approve a centralized approach, we didn’t authorize a decentralized approach. We kind of continued the status quo."
Coun. Terri McConnachie was not at Monday night's meeting.