The front lawn of city hall was the only site proposed for overnight camping as a solution to the growing number of outdoor homeless camps in Terrace at a June 21 council committee of the whole meeting.
The report presented to council by city manager of social development Linda Stephens comes amid safety concerns about the potential for overdoses, fires and vandalism at makeshift outdoor camps elsewhere.
Firefighters and other emergency personnel have already responded to one fire this year — a June 15 blaze at an encampment on city property near the CN railway tracks adjacent to the old Skeena Bridge.
Coun. James Cordeiro said a spot should be designated as quickly as possible and he supports the idea of using the city hall lawn. “I don’t want us to have a location that’s out in the middle of nowhere that’s going to cause a lot of problems.”
He said while it might not be the best place it is close to the ambulance station, the fire hall and the RCMP detachment.
Cordeiro said waiting too long could result in more problems once encampments become entrenched in less desirable places. Cities like Prince George now have camps where people live full-time.
Coun. David Gordon countered that the front lawn of the RCMP station “is much more open and has fewer assets on it” than the front lawn of city hall, which he described as fairly well occupied.
As it is, the city is preparing to install one of four covered bike shelters it has purchased for $223,650 on one section of the front lawn.
Terrace chief administrative officer Kris Boland said it’s a “really difficult conversation” that boils down to whether or not the city wants to be proactive and maintain an element of control or be reactive when it’s already too late.
“I think the sentiments around the department head table were very similar to Coun. Cordiero’s comments. Is city hall the best place? No. But we couldn’t come up with a better one,” Boland said.
“If you don’t designate it then all public realms are fair game.”
Stephens described a mixed model approach in which people would slowly move to space made available by the city. Options include designating a single location or more than one.
Community safety officer Liam Nutma suggested people would first be encouraged to use available indoor shelters. People with no other choice would be directed to the outdoor space and given a set of rules to follow while there.
The city’s bylaw enforcement policy now seeks to move camps if they are in visible spots, where there are fire and other safety concerns, if garbage accumulates or if stolen items are found.
That approach has been criticized as “shuffling people around town,” Stephens said.
Court rulings now prohibit municipalities in B.C. from banning camping if people cannot find shelter elsewhere.
Cities can, however, decide where to allow camping and can stipulate that shelters can only be set up at night and removed the next morning.
Stephens said designated areas have the benefits of washrooms, waste receptacles, containers for needles once used to inject drugs, conduct guidelines, daytime storage of goods and possessions, security and paid workers encouraging residents to leave during the day.
City development director David Block said he could easily see costs for the above approaching $10,000 a month, rising to more than $100,000 a year.
Coun. Sean Bujtas said the issue is a provincial responsibly and residents might not support higher municipal taxes to pay for those services.
While no decision was reached at the June 21 meeting, city officials are asking senior governments for money to keep its community safety officer employed, to expand the number of rented porta-potties it has stationed around the city and to increase day storage for campers.
The report points to a need for more engagement, and discussions between different levels of government to prevent homeless camps, to support appropriate housing and the complex needs of vulnerable people.
Cordeiro also proposed making the outdoor location “as spartan as possible” so that it deosn’t become an attractive alternative to an indoor shelter or a ‘magnet’ for people from around the northwest.
Block said staff deosn’t yet know how many people would be allowed to camp in front of city hall.
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