Canada is in the midst of a homelessness crisis, with urban centres being the epicentres of this crisis. With the rising need for affordable housing and often limited availability of low barrier shelter options, many people experiencing homelessness are sleeping outside in tents and other makeshift structures in public spaces and parks.
A series of British Columbia court decisions, starting with Victoria (City) v. Adams 2009 BCCA 563, have established that homeless people have a constitutional right to erect temporary overnight shelters on public lands in circumstances where there are insufficient appropriate housing options. In subsequent decisions, including the Abbotsford (City) v. Shantz case the Courts have struck down municipal bylaws that prohibited homeless people from erecting temporary shelters and sleeping in city parks.
In recognition of the case law, the Vancouver Park Board directed staff to review the Parks Control By-laws and report back with proposed amendments to address the constitutional rights of those experiencing homelessness, while also allowing for more effective management of shelters and encampments in parks. Staff had planned to present proposed by-law amendments at a Special Board meeting in March 2020; however this meeting was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the interim, any by-laws that would be in violation of Charter rights have not been enforced. Those experiencing homelessness have been able to seek temporary overnight shelter in parks, with Park Rangers requesting tents be removed each morning and only intervening if there is a concern around safety, park access, or impacts to other park uses.
Homelessness in Vancouver ParksOver the past several years, Vancouver’s rise in social issues such as the opioid crisis and homelessness have significantly impacted the use, safety, and cleanliness of many urban parks on a year round basis. The growing number of temporary structures being erected in parks due to homelessness, combined with urban densification putting more demands on limited green space, has resulted in increased conflicts requiring more attention from Park Rangers.
The growing demand for Park Ranger services is evident in the increased case volumes received during patrols, via 311 calls and VanConnect. There has been a 625% increase in total cases from 2015 to 2019. Most notably, cases related to temporary structures in parks saw significant increases year over year from 2017 to 2019. Based on current case trends, the total number of cases in 2020 is expected to continue to increase at a similar pace to previous years. As of the end of May, the total number of cases for 2020 was 7,065; if cases continue to increase at this rate it is anticipated that 2020 would see approximately 17,000 cases -- a 22% increase compared to the 13,849 cases seen in 2019.
In October 2019, Park Rangers undertook a citywide audit of all Vancouver parks to assess and identify all temporary homeless shelter activity occurring in parks. In addition to the 107 structures erected in the large encampment that was situated in Oppenheimer Park at that time (see Appendix B for more background on this encampment), they counted a total of 405 different occurrences within 116 parks distributed in all areas of the city. Of that total, 179 were deemed to be active (33 of which were in Stanley Park), with 226 appearing to be abandoned (no one present at that time) and requiring varying degrees of clean-up and debris removal.
When temporary structures erected as shelters remain in parks for extended periods of time, particularly if in concentrated numbers, the resulting encampments can impede community use of much needed public green spaces; result in the accumulation of debris and human waste; and create opportunities for increased violence and health risks. Depending on location, large encampments can also impact community programming, support services and events, and can result in significant damage to sport fields, playgrounds, park facilities, and natural habitats.
Currently about 85% of available ranger resources are required for monitoring and managing homeless shelter activity in parks. Due to the complexity of managing the associated issues, the rangers work closely with other city departments as well as community partners: the Vancouver Police (VPD) when dealing with public safety issues, with Park Operations and City of Vancouver Engineering when dealing with site management and clean-up, and with the City of Vancouver Homelessness Services Outreach Team and other community health teams when providing and facilitating support services to those experiencing homelessness and sheltering in parks.
In order for the Board to deliver on its mission, the Parks Control By-law must be updated to ensure it is enforceable and that it recognizes the needs of all park users, including those currently experiencing homelessness. The new by-laws outlined in this report have been developed based on the experience and knowledge staff have gained over the past few years, particularly in relation to the wide-reaching impacts large encampments can have on individuals experiencing homelessness and sleeping in parks, as well as on the communities and businesses surrounding them. Although encampments may provide a sense of safety and community for those that live within them, they often end-up disrupting and displacing much needed community services and access to green space, and can negatively impact the health and safety of neighbourhood businesses and residents when illicit activities become established within and around the encampment. The goal of the proposed by-law amendments is to support those experiencing homelessness, but also to minimize impacts to parks and the community by limiting the potential for encampments to become established.
DISCUSSIONIn response to the Adams case law, several BC municipalities have updated their bylaws to allow for temporary overnight shelter in parks. To help inform the development of new by-laws to support Vancouver’s needs, Park Board staff reviewed other by-law updates, including those enacted by Abbotsford, Kelowna, Nanaimo, and Victoria, and also consulted with other municipal staff to learn more about how these new by-laws have been operationalized.
Consistent across most of the by-law updates were provisions for: - areas that temporary structures providing shelter may, or may not be, erected; - hours when the structures providing shelter may be erected; and - regulations around fire, alcohol use, litter, and smoking.
Some municipalities identified entire parks where temporary structures for shelter are prohibited (e.g. Victoria), and others already included areas designated for overnight camping (e.g. Nanaimo).
Based on this research, and through discussions with various Park Board and City of Vancouver teams (Rangers, Park Operations, Planning, Policy & Environment, Arts, Culture & Community Services, Legal Services, etc.), proposed amendments to the Parks Control By-law were developed to protect the Charter rights of people experiencing homelessness when they are seeking temporary shelter in parks.
Parks Control By-law – Proposed Amendments regarding Temporary Shelter in Parks
As a result of the case law, preventing a person experiencing homelessness from erecting a
temporary structure to provide overnight shelter is a breach of their constitutional rights.
Therefore, sections of the Vancouver Park Board’s by-laws that are currently unconstitutional
include the provisions that prohibit:
- remaining in a park after posted hours (section 3b);
- taking up temporary abode overnight (section 10); and
- erecting any tent or shelter without permission (section 11).
Why Changes are Needed
As such, it is proposed that the Parks Control By-law be amended to allow people to erect temporary overnight shelter in a park when they have no other housing or shelter options. The proposed amendments, attached as Appendix A, include adding two new sections (11A & 11B) that outline the conditions that apply to seeking temporary shelter in parks, along with some new definitions and minor revisions to other sections to support these added provisions. The key changes with rationale are outlined below. - 6 of 9- Park Board Special Meeting: July 13, 2020
What Changes are NeededAs noted above, there are three sections in the by-law that require amendments to support those experiencing homelessness when erecting temporary structures to provide overnight shelter in parks. To clarify the meaning and intent of language included in the new sections, three new definitions have been added:
“HOMELESSNESS” means the state of having no access to permanent or temporary housing, accommodation, or shelter.
“NATURAL AREAS” are those areas of parks that are managed to retain their natural ecosystem attributes, are relatively undisturbed in an urban context, contain native or naturalized non-native plant species, and provide wildlife habitat, stormwater retention, and other ecosystem services; these include forests, ponds, wetlands, stream riparian zones, coastal environments, meadows, treed areas without mown understory, and unmanicured sections of golf courses.
“TEMPORARY SHELTER” means a tent or other temporary structure that provides shelter to a person experiencing homelessness and that is capable of being dismantled and moved, but does not include a vehicle.
There are two sections that currently prohibit when parks can be accessed. The first section requiring revision is Section 3(b), which states: “No person shall enter or remain in a park except during the hours posted”. With the posted hours at most parks being from 6am to 10pm, in order to allow people experiencing homelessness to sleep overnight in parks, it is recommended that this section be amended to: “Except as provided in section 11A, no person shall enter or remain in a park except during the hours posted.”
The second section requiring revision is Section 10, which states: No person shall conduct himself or herself in a disorderly or offensive manner, or molest or injure any other person, or loiter or take up a temporary abode overnight in any place on any portion of any park, or obstruct the free use and enjoyment of any park or place by any other person, or violate any by-law, rule, regulation, notice or command of the Board, the General Manager, Peace Officer, or any other person in control of or maintaining, superintending, or supervising any park of or under the custody, control and management of the Board; and any person conducting himself or herself as aforesaid may be removed or otherwise dealt with as in this by-law provided.
To allow a person experiencing homelessness to sleep overnight in a park, it is recommended that the phrase “except as provided in section 11A” be added after “or take up a temporary abode in any place on any portion of any park”.
The third section requiring revision is Section 11, which currently states: “No person shall erect, construct or build or cause to be erected, constructed or built in or on any park any tent, building, shelter, pavilion or other construction whatsoever without the permission of the General Manager”. It is recommended that this clause be amended to add at the end: “, except that this provision does not apply to a temporary shelter that complies with the provisions of this by-law”.
This revision will then support the recommended two new temporary shelter sections:
- Section 11A - includes provisions for allowing a “person experiencing homeless to take up temporary abode in a park” as long as the shelter complies with the provisions outlined in Section 11B.
- Section 11B – outlines where temporary shelters are prohibited, when they can be erected, what restrictions apply, and how the space can be used.
Where Temporary Shelters are AllowedIn recognition of Vancouver’s vast and diverse park system, staff determined that rather than identifying specific parks or areas within parks where temporary shelters would be permitted, it would be more helpful to identify the types of places and areas where they would not be permitted (see Appendix A, Section 11B). Some of the factors considered when determining what areas would not be suitable for erecting temporary shelters included:
- mitigating risk to children & youth by requiring a 25 metre buffer around playgrounds and schools; e.g. the current opioid crisis often intersects with the homelessness crisis, resulting in the possibility of used needles and other debris found around temporary shelter sites;
- protecting sensitive environments of natural areas such as forests, meadows, wetlands, ponds, streams, and beaches; e.g. trampling and compaction of forest undergrowth and soils by temporary shelters can cause significant harm to these important ecosystems;
- reducing risk of fire and injury; e.g. setting-up temporary shelters in forested areas, such as those found in Stanley Park, can make detecting wildfires difficult and challenging to access by fire and emergency crews, putting both the person seeking shelter and the surrounding forest at risk, especially with the increasing seasonal periods of drought;
- ensuring access for all; e.g. keeping roads, pathways, trails, facilities, and entry points unimpeded is required for the use and safety of all parks and recreation patrons, staff, contractors, and emergency personnel; - protecting gardens and horticultural displays; e.g. community gardens, flower beds, and display gardens require regular maintenance and can be easily damaged if not protected or kept accessible;
- supporting parks & recreation for all; ensuring the community has access to safe and wellmaintained greenspace, community gardens, fieldhouses, and recreation amenities (sports courts & fields, pools & spray parks, skate parks, fitness equipment, playgrounds, etc.), is a primary function of the Park Board.
When Temporary Shelters are AllowedIt is recommended that temporary shelters only be erected overnight and that they be removed each morning (dusk to 7am). In determining when temporary shelters could be erected in parks, some of the considered factors included:
- temporary shelters that remain in place for extended periods can impede public access to parks and facilities, cause damage to fields, gardens, and natural areas, and result in an accumulation of waste and debris;
- setting-up temporary shelter in the dark is challenging and since daylight hours change with the seasons, allowing for set-up at dusk provides for flexibility without requiring specific knowledge of the actual time of day;
- dismantling a temporary shelter requires a little time, so an hour buffer (to 8am) is provided to allow for packing-up in the morning; and
- a specific provision has been added to provide the General Manager the authority to designate areas for temporary daytime shelter on a situational basis if needed.
How Temporary Shelters are AllowedIt is recommended that temporary shelter sites be contained within a 3 metre by 3 metre area, not impede access or use of a park or facility, and not present a public safety or health risk. When determining how temporary shelters could be erected in parks, some of the considered factors included:
- a maximum footprint would help contain the amount and spread of items, which supports the need for daily removal of any structures;
- several temporary shelters concentrated in a specific area are more likely to impact access; - use of open flame or other heating devices presents a safety concern;
- shelters should not be left unattended.
The primary intent of the proposed by-law changes is to ensure the Park Board has the tools needed to protect the park assets within its jurisdiction, while balancing the needs and rights of all park users. It is recognized that these amendments will not address the larger issue of homelessness, and that ongoing collaboration with all involved is required to ensure the resources and services needed to support this vulnerable community are provided.
NEXT STEPSSubject to Board approval, the proposed by-law amendments would be presented for enactment at a subsequent Regular Board meeting. Once enacted, plans to operationalize the new bylaws will be developed, including the development of monitoring and wrap-around support services, in consultation and partnership with key stakeholders and service providers.
Development of these plans will include reviewing the Park Rangers role in encampment monitoring, management, and by-law enforcement, with a separate report back to the Board on the overall ranger service model, as well as considering the various health, safety, and support needs of those experiencing homelessness and seeking shelter overnight in parks (clean water, washrooms, storage, etc.).
CONCLUSIONStaff recommend that the Parks Control By-law be updated with the amendments proposed in Appendix A to ensure that its provisions do not infringe upon the constitutional rights of park users, and that it specifically protects the rights of those seeking overnight shelter in parks when they have no other suitable housing or shelter options available to them. Park Board staff are committed to continuing to work with community and government partners to support ongoing efforts to address the homelessness crisis in Vancouver, recognizing that additional resources and services are required to more effectively serve the needs of this marginalized population. Subject to Board approval, this by-law amendment will provide a clearer framework for staff to deliver on the Board’s mandate to provide, preserve, and advocate for parks and recreation services to benefit all people, communities, and the environment.
General Manager's Office
Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation