VICTORIA — B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson said if elected he will remove and restrict tent cities, like in Vancouver’s Strathcona Park, though exactly how he intends to do so remains unclear.
Wilkinson said Thursday it is unacceptable for people and businesses around tent cities to feel threatened and unsafe, as they deal with crime and open drug-use concerns related to the homeless population that lives there.
“The current situation is testing the limits of community tolerance,” he said at a press conference in Vancouver. “This is not acceptable. We can do better we must do better.”
However, he stopped short of a detailed plan. Instead, he said a Liberal government would use legislation, policy, funding, co-operation with local mayors and boosted resources for police and the courts to attempt to eliminate the tent city encampments.
The campaign pledge comes as parties debate how to handle ongoing homelessness issues, additional complications caused by COVID-19 and the proliferation of tent cities in different communities.
A backgrounder provided by the Liberal party contained several promises of increased police crackdowns on gangs, prosecution of illegal guns and court reforms to reduce backlogs. But the party’s stated goal to “move to end lawless camping in day-use urban parks” was not further explained.
The highest-profile tent city is currently in Vancouver’s Strathcona Park, where nearby residents have been complaining about rising violence, threats, drug use and crime since the first tents went up in in the spring. Many of the tents in Strathcona used to be located at CRAB Park on the city’s northern waterfront, until federal port authorities were granted a court injunction to clear the camp. Prior to that, the homeless tent concerns were primarily centered around Oppenheimer Park.
The NDP government has spent tens of millions of dollars purchasing hotels and shelter spaces for the homeless during COVID-19, but it has not eliminated tent encampments in Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park or around Vancouver.
“In Strathcona, calls about weapons are up by 50 per cent and break ins went up by 68 per cent,” said Wilkinson.
“It is not acceptable to hear of people being chased down the street by a man with a chainsaw. It is not acceptable to hear of a loaded assault rifle being found in an alleyway in Strathcona. It is not acceptable to hear of toddlers being spat upon and hair salons being intimidated and obstructed on Davie Street and Hornby Street.
“This is wrong. It’s not okay to have this proliferation of crime in urban centres, and it needs to be fixed. Our communities need to be safe. People need to feel secure in their neighbourhoods badly. The NDP has ignored this problem of growing urban crime. They’ve ignored the growth of 10 cities hoping it’ll just go away. NDP have done nothing more than concentrate these issues into inner city neighbourhood.”
But the lack of details did not impress the people who live near Strathcona Park and have been advocating for action.
“We actually need him, if he wants to be an opposition leader and he wants to step up, to give a concrete plan — a short-term plan and a long-term plan,” said Katie Lewis, vice-president of the Strathcona Residents’ Association.
“We haven’t seen that at all.”
Lewis said residents have been ignored for 16 weeks while the camp situation has grown worse, and she remains frustrated at all the provincial parties for their lack of action.
Wilkinson said he’d be willing to work with mayors in Nanaimo, Victoria, Maple Ridge and Vancouver to come up with solutions. He said the NDP government isn’t listening to local communities when it places modular housing for the homeless in locations without public consultation.
Residents in Maple Ridge and Nanaimo have protested the province’s modular housing choices. In Victoria, businesses and residents around provincially purchased hotels for the homeless have also complained government is doing doing enough to prevent negative impacts to their livelihoods.
New Democrat supporters online Thursday accused Wilkinson of further dividing communities and stigmatizing homeless people by focusing on law and order solutions.
In Victoria last month, police made several arrests at a homeless tent city in Centennial Square, saying it had been used as cover for criminal activities. Wilkinson seized upon that in his descriptions Thursday.
“Simply allowing these tent cities to be built up and be infiltrated by criminals is not an answer,” he said. “It’s a complete abdication of responsibility.”
On mental health and addictions, Wilkinson said there needs to be more resources for treatment and recovery, so that those with illnesses are not left in tent cities where they are preyed upon by criminals.
Housing Minister Selina Robinson, who is running for re-election for the NDP in Coquitlam-Maillardville, scoffed at Wilkinson’s lack of detail.
“What it tells me is they don’t have a plan,” she said. “All they’ve been doing is complaining about our work that we’ve been doing for 3.5 years.”
Robinson said government did find solutions for tent cities on the Surrey strip, Sugar Mountain in East Vancouver, Oppenheimer Park, Topaz Park in Victoria and locations in Maple Ridge.
“We have been doing the work,” she said, citing 3,800 people placed in supportive housing during the NDP’s term. “There’s no easy solution. It’s not like you can snap your fingers and make it go away. We’ve done the hard work.”
Years of inaction on housing affordability and social services, combined with COVID-19, has made the situation worse, and brought out the hidden homeless who had been couch-surfing or sharing rooms with others, said Robinson. “Our plan was working, and we need more of it,” she said.
The courts have also had a role in deciding the future of homeless camps. Previous B.C. Supreme Court rulings in Victoria and Vancouver have set the precedent that camping overnight in public parks is constitutionally protected if there are not enough resources or spaces provided by government to accommodate them.
“The courts have relied upon the charter of rights to say that people need to have somewhere to go to,” said Wilkinson. “Perfectly appropriate answer. And the answer is we need places for those folks to go to that’s going to be effective and helpful for them, not just a warehouse where they’re just abandoned by the NDP.”