Opinion: Park bylaw change a pre-emptive strike

Chilliwack had little choice but to allow homeless to camp overnight in public parks.

A decision by the City of Chilliwack to permit the homeless to camp overnight in public parks has created quite a stir.

But in reality, Chilliwack had no choice.

The decision was made months ago when the B.C. Supreme Court ruled a municipality could not bar people from seeking shelter in public parks if no other accommodation was available. Doing so would deny them a constitutional right to safety and security.

That decision meant it was only a matter of time before someone challenged Chilliwack’s no-camping bylaw. What the city has done is anticipate that potential and structure a bylaw that sets strict conditions, while still being in compliance.

It’s a pre-emptive strike to retain some control over a difficult situation.

But it does something more. It sends a clear message to the public that if they see people camped out in city parks it’s because other levels of government have failed to fulfill their obligations.

It’s a familiar lament: Although municipalities face the brunt of problems associated with homelessness, solutions like affordable housing and shelter accommodations fall outside their jurisdiction.

There are steps municipalities can take, and Chilliwack has made significant progress working with like-minded community partners to find solutions.

But until upper levels of government step forward, Chilliwack will continue to react to the consequences of a growing problem.

And it is growing. There are currently 15 homeless camps in Chilliwack, says Mayor Sharon Gaetz. Her fear is that there will be more as a “tsunami of homelessness” heads our way.

Indeed, other municipalities are already noticing their shelters are filling up as a red-hot real estate market drives rent prices up, and the economy in Alberta continues to sag.

Chilliwack is trying to respond to this growing need.

But it can’t do it alone.