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Will George, Economic Development Office for Town of Smithers about Bylaw 24 (Parks and Open Spaces) discussion to allo wnew spaces for temporary overnight sheltering.

Full episode transcript below:

The town of Smithers is reviewing a 94 year old bylaw regarding temporary overnight sheltering options in 12 areas of town owned land. The areas are veterans, peace Park, heritage Park, Elks Park, Pacific Street, and Tatler Road, Dogwood Park. Ranger Park, Tatler Road North the fall. Fairgrounds. Central Park.

Riverside Park, vacant lots. Two at Queen Street in Halford Avenue and vacant three lots at 38. 73 fourth Avenue. Residents who live within 60 meters of any of the aforementioned sites received a letter indicating this possible bylaw change. You may be aware that a portion of the unhoused population of Smithers currently have been pitching tents in a fenced off zone of Veterans Park.

Veterans Park, by the way, is the grassy area between the town hall and Public library. According to a homeless count conducted in 2021, at least 33 people in Smithers are unhoused, and that number has only grown of the count conducted in 2021. 93% identified themselves as being indigenous compared to 10% of the total population being indigenous in notes from the February, 2023 Smithers Town Council.

July of 2022 town staff sought a legal review of the current tent cities encampments that had recently grown in specific locations around the town. The history prior to this is summarized as quickly as possible here. During Covid, there was a homeless camp set up on Townland Tatau Road, and multiple service agencies were involved in the operation of it.

The camp lasted one winter season before one tent burned down. As the weather improved, all of the residents moved onto other areas except for one occupant. There were various issues reported from local service agencies as to why the location and camp were not a success with the primary factors being that it was winter cold and too far for individuals to walk to the services that they require.

The town has always had a homeless population that would camp in the summer months at what is known as the snow dump site, and also colloquially known as the jungle. This area is located at the south end of undeveloped Broadway Avenue, on town owned lands flanked by crown lands on both sides. In 2021, occupants popped up at the snow dump site again, but their tents and belongings were being attacked.

The occupants did not feel safe in that location any longer, and tents started popping up in new locations around town. Tents appeared, for instance, on the grass area and stage of Beeville Square Council allowed occupants to camp at the park across the street from town hall adjacent to Veterans Park in order to try and mitigate the situation.

Usually the town sees homeless camps in the spring and summer months until September, October when many occupants find alternate means of housing with a few battling out the winter tents throughout the town or in shed. , it appears that many occupants were able to find housing options outside of Smothers in nearby communities.

In wit Set Houston and Fort Baine 2021 Winter came and there were about five to seven occupants who had no alternative winter housing options. As such, the town via Positive Living North worked with BC Housing to bring in a dry bunkhouse trailer and place it on the land adjacent to veterans. Under a separate grant project, the town provided eight exterior vandal resistant lockers for the residents.

The temporary trailer was funded under the emergency Winter Housing Fund with BC Housing, and the trailer was removed at the end of May, 2022. Once the funding ran out. Following the recent ruling of Prince George, the city v v Stewart and Prince George Vijai, and because of the limited emergency shelter spots available in town council continued to allow this location to be used by people experiencing homelessness.

For deeper information about Prince George V. Stewart and Prince George Vijai, you can visit the BC Civil Liberties. But briefly, in August of 2021, the city applied for an injunction to evict unhoused residents living in Moccasin Flats. In October, the BC Supreme Court released its decision in Prince George V.

Stewart, and denied this injunction. The court ruled that the tent city residents should not be evicted because there were not enough accessible shelter spaces for them. Then in October of that year, the encampment was bull Doz. In 2022, the encampment on the land adjacent to Veterans Park grew to approximately 15 residents at its peak crime in Smithers has reportedly increased dramatically, and many incidents are directly identified as related to the individuals at the encampment on the land adjacent to Veterans Park.

However, according to Statistics Canada, the town of Smithers saw significant decreases in its crime severity index, violent crime severity index, and non-violent crime severity index. In 2021, I reached out to the local RC M P detachment on the crime stats beyond 2021, but was not granted an interview.

There are still occupants living in the snow dump and on crowned land in that area. In an effort to reduce crime rates in the downtown core staff sought legal advice on where encampments could and could not occur within the jurisdiction of the town on July 20th, 2022. The town is provided with a legal opinion referencing rulings to similar cases.

The legal opinion indicated that the town's current parks, bylaw number 24, adopted in 1926 is no longer sufficient. Or applicable to enforce today's expectations and standards of parks and open spaces. Uses. As such, town staff began drafting a new parks bylaw, taking into consideration the legal opinion, provided themes from similarly situated communities and input from town departments, given the quickly changing legal circumstances and the ever-growing housing crisis across the province.

It is important for the town to consider this bylaw in order to adapt and remain in line with the charter of rights of homeless individuals and community park users. I spoke to a number of people who have frequented but aren't currently staying in the encampment adjacent to Veterans Park. They told me that they didn't know anything about this bylaw change yet.

When I spoke to Will George, who you'll hear my interview with very shortly, he said that staff had been sharing the responsibility to let people in the encampment. No. Today when I asked a woman currently living in a tent in the encampment, she said that she didn't know anything about it. The town understands that this is a significant change in how parks and open spaces will be used, and are encouraging all residents to share their thoughts throughout this process.

There's an open house town hall meeting at the Smithers Town offices on Monday, March 27th from 5:00 PM until 8:00 PM that anyone can attend to voice their thoughts. You can also write a letter or submit an email to the before Tuesday, March 21st, 1:00 PM if you can't be there in person.

Now let's hear from the town's representative on this subject. Will George Dam.

My name's Will George. I'm the Economic Development Officer for the Town of Smithers. Okay, so we're talking about the proposed bylaw change of 1951 for the town of Smithers. And I wonder how does the town plan to balance the interest and considerations of the health and safety for individuals who require some form of shelter?

Yeah, that's a great question. So really where we are with this Parks and Open Spaces bylaw is we have it open for public comment, opportunity, uh, for a public engagement session on March 27th from five until eight. And council has really informed staff that they want to hear from members of the community around these park options.

Potential spaces, uh, for the change of the parks and open spaces bylaws. So that will be something that council looks forward to hearing from community members around some of these options. And, um, what is, what is the voice from our community? What spurred the change? . Yeah. So those are requirements, um, uh, legal requirements that we have to follow as a municipality that we're required to provide temporary shelter space.

So that's the reason that all this communication has gone out. And thank you very much for sharing this information. Uh, with the community, uh, mailouts, were re, uh, provided to homeowners, um, and property. Within a 60 meter distance from any of the 12 town owned land, uh, for council's potential consideration over the last few weeks.

So this change is, uh, for council to have, uh, a conversation that's part of a larger, larger discussion. You'll see from the information that's on the town website that there was, uh, many reports that have built up to this time, the most recent being on February 6th with the report to council with the updated parks and Open Spaces bylaw.

And really we're looking at, um, a previous bylaw from. , I believe it was adopted in 1926, which is the town's current parks, bylaw number 24. So, um, it's no longer sufficient and, uh, we need to make sure that we're, uh, meeting today's standards and expectations of what's required. Mm-hmm. . And I guess, would you go ahead and, I guess just explain what the, um, what the proposal is that went out to homeowner?

Yeah, of course. So this is, uh, additional information, um, including a copy of the staff report that's, uh, found on our website. So there was just a overview, um, of the parks and open spaces bylaw. Mm-hmm. . There was a letter, uh, talking about the upcoming March 27th public comment, opportunity, um, encouraging individuals to come forward to council and share.

Um, comments or concerns that they have about the use of our parks and open spaces. So, um, those are defined in our, uh, zones for P one P2 and P four, and that's really looking at the temporary overnight sheltering instead of some of the permanent sheltering that we have in some of our parks and open spaces.

Right. And so, and, and when you're saying overnight sheltering, just to be clear as well, so it's for people who wanna camp, but it's also for. , like I'm assuming longer stays for some of our homeless population to have a tent there. Like can you kind of let me know who, who this is for and I guess what the duration of this possible sheltering would be?

Yeah, a hundred percent. So when we're talking about temporary overnight sheltering, we're looking at really understanding what that looks like for, uh, a balancing act between our different user groups of the park. So, uh, some of our vulnerable populations, uh, with this change, um, we could see the, the tents.

Coming down during the day and then, um, allowing them to set up, uh, for a particular time Now that hasn't been decided for, for what time. Um, we're allowing the tenants to, to set up, uh, that's something that council wants to hear from members of the public of, but really looking at the balance, as I mentioned, and reducing the undue hardships for our vulnerable populations.

Okay. And yeah, I guess that that's something that I'm really interested in, in kind of hearing the town's perspective on as well, is. That currently where, um, tents are allow allowable to be set up as Veterans Park, which is close to close to amenities, it's right downtown. It's right by many of the, um, services, um, that is, that's walkable for people.

So with, with the option of.  at certain time of day, people being allowed to set up a tent. What's the plan for tents during the day before people can set their tent up to sleep overnight? Yeah, really good question. Um, and, and something that you touched on there is the walkability. So each of these sites were identified using the same considerations and the general rule being close to services for our vulnerable populations and the walkability aspect.

So, um, you know, this is something that in the report, Uh, staff identified the current site as being the most efficient for providing temporary overnight sheltering, but it was, uh, asked that we provide all of the potential, uh, locations for council and the community to consider that are town owned land that are within a certain walkable distance from those services.

So that's why on the website you see at. About 12 locations. And there's really a pros and cons that are provided through those different, um, town own lands around safety, access to services, feasibility that really outline, um, some of these potential sites. And, uh, staff have, have recommended, uh, leaving it at the current site that that will be part of the conversation that, uh, that council has at the upcoming, uh, meeting.

And they're looking forward to hearing from members of the public around some of these locations and concerns and suggestions that they have. . Right. And I, and so just to kind of go back and just to touch on that, so is there a time of day that council is suggesting to be the time when people can set up their tents?

That's still being considered. So we're wanting to, uh, to hear from members of the public on that, that hasn't been cited. Okay. And really just. Even focusing, focusing down even more on that, when we're talking about time of day and location, uh, I want to make it crystal clear that council has not made a decision on the location.

So before deciding on a location, council would like to hear from the public. Okay, great. Don't make that, that's a per very clear . And that's a perfect segue into my next question, which was that just, um, I mean because I live near a park close enough, I guess that I was one of the people, I'm one of the residents who received the letter in the mail.

Um, now is it. But the, but the bylaw is changing for one park or for all parks in Smith. Yeah, so, you know, this, uh, parks and Open Spaces bylaw is to look at temporary, overnight sheltering services and the consideration of whether it'll be focusing on one park or multiple parks. Uh, council wants to hear on that.

So that hasn't been decided. It's looking at, uh, what the use will be. Um, and, and here, here is all the town owned land and here is the parks. Um, and what's the next steps? And council have having that conversation. Okay. So, um, And, and again, I guess is this, I guess if you're just gonna tell me that this is what council is discussing, but is there an actual number as in, um, days or weeks for length of stay, for temporary, overnight sheltering?

Like is someone allowed to basically claim a space as their own and use it for a couple of the summer? Yeah, so I think the best, the best way to answer that one would be councils looking at, uh, temporary, overnight sheltering instead of sheltering in place. So this would be, um, looking at, um, individuals, uh, you know, the time to be determined and the location to be determined, but, uh, not building up a particular amount of, um, A particular amount of material at that location.

But, uh, picking it up each day and, um, whether there's a space provided to, to store those, uh, tents and, um, materials. Um, and then,  the park and open space can be used for other user groups cuz we really want to balance all of our parks, uh, between the variety of user groups in the community. And then during a particular time in, in the evenings, um, those vulnerable populations, uh, might be able to come back and, um, uh, temporary, uh, shelter at, at the park.

That will be decided by council there. So, you know, There's factors that are still being determined, whether it's, uh, considering the location and the time, but, um, we're looking to have it, um, more for temporary instead of the, the permanent, um, as we spoke about. Mm-hmm. . And what about things like, um, so for people who would typically use and need overnight, sheltering, I mean, you know, we are speaking about the vulnerable population in Smithers, which we both know has grown.

Mm-hmm. , so, but what about, I mean, I, you know,  when, um, when the population was basically in the snow dump area, um, or the jungle as it's sometimes called as well, there was quite a bit of harassment. , um, fights, and I know that by reading the Young Anderson report that was cited in the, uh, in the council minutes, I believe by uh, the planning technician, Annie Gerler for the town that, um, things like fights, drugs and possession of weapons and things like that, or something that kind of has to be considered when, um, people feel just outside of the city or they feel maybe even just outside of.

um, of the law, like no one's really watching them. So I mean, has the town considered the estimated costs for police intervention in these parks and, and then again, not to mention calls for harassment when people are being harassed because they're not really in such a visible space. Yeah, I think the best answer for that would be everything is being looked at as part of this conversation.

Uh, you'll notice in the February. , uh, report to council that there was lots of history and background that staff provided to council. And you know, that comment that you made around the, the snow dump, uh, it was noted in here as well that, um, individuals, uh, occupants, tents and belongings were being attacked.

Mm-hmm. , um, occupants didn't feel safe. So, you know, councils reviewing all of these, These options, uh, things that we've heard in the past in, in the last few years, um, as well as what we're hearing from members of the public, um, and, and, uh, community members around the potential locations and what those costs could look out like and, and the difference between sheltering in place, uh, temporary, uh, sheltering options.

Um, all, all of that is being looked at. Um, lots of background went into, uh, updating this, this file as, as you mentioned, the, the current. Parks Bylaw is, uh, was adopted in 1926 there, so, uh, we have to meet, uh, uh, today's standards and expectations for the new, new parks and Open Spaces bylaw. And who from the town is, um, contacting and gathering, um, feedback from the population of people who do use whether or not all the time.

Um, Or maybe sometimes they have to find themselves in a tent because they're not able to find a space within community services. Who from the town is reaching out to our vulnerable population and the unhoused who are currently living well, being sheltered temporarily at Veterans Park? Yeah. So that's, it's really a combined effort for that.

Uh, we have staff members that are talking to our businesses, staff members that are talking to our residents, uh, including those, uh, community members, uh, from the vulnerable population that are, uh, right across from town hall here. And, uh, we have a collaborative approach with, uh, many staff members going out and doing that regular communication with them.

So we've told them of this upcoming meeting, uh, and we will be continuing to, to inform them of. This, you know, the, the day before. And, uh, and many touchpoints to ensure that they're aware of, you know, this meeting and inviting them to, to participate. Uh, we wanna make sure that this is, uh, open for, for all members of the community to come and, um, yeah, share in multiple avenues.

We've heard that there are some community members that won't be there on the 27th, but unfortunately they'll be out of town. And we're wanting to really stress that there's three points. Um, of, uh, options for submitting proposals. Uh, one of course being there in person. Uh, the meeting will be on March 27th at five o'clock until eight.

Um, there, there is the option to go longer if there's, uh, lots of community members that, uh, that wish to speak. Um, and we're encouraging folks to sign up on the speaker's list. Uh, the other option is submitting a letter to our office, mailing it in or dropping it off. And the third option is sending in an email.

um, to town hall. Now those, those dates for the last two of sending in a letter, mailing, uh, mailing it in or dropping it off, or the, uh, email to town office, uh, really want to stress that, that, uh, those deadlines are this upcoming Tuesday, March 21st at 1:00 PM So we want to ensure that we collect all that information by this Tuesday, March 21st at 1:00 PM uh, in order to have all that ready and present.

Ready to present to counsel for our 27th meeting. . Yeah. Um, and thanks for reminding people of those dates. I think that that's really important. I guess maybe my last question is just have you already been hearing from, uh, have you already been hearing from residents who received the letter? Like, are, are, is there kind of like a general pulse on what people are thinking and feeling?

Good question. Uh, yes, we've received lots of input and feedback from residents, uh, both online. Um, the, the letters that we've sent, uh, received lots of, uh, phone calls and emails and, uh, we're compiling all that information. You know, I wouldn't be able to answer any. Common thread, uh, themes that we're seeing in this because the deadline is still, uh, coming up on the 21st for folks to submit.

Uh, but we are hoping to have a really good turnout, um, from community members. And, uh, we want to also stress that any comments made on our social media platforms or any social media platforms, unfortunately won't be tracked or considered as part of council's decision making process. So we're encouraging, uh, community members that have concerns or comments about.

this proposed, uh, bylaw to come in person or submit email, uh, or a, uh, letter dropped off at town hall or mailed in, uh, prior to the meeting there. Mm-hmm. . Mm-hmm. . Okay. Um, will, is there anything that I didn't ask about to include in this discussion before the 27th and I guess before the date of submissions for letters as well?

Um, I think those are the main items. Just making sure that you have the, uh, deadline for people submitting comments. Uh, Tuesday, March 21st at 1:00 PM. Um, those can go to general for, for email correspondence and comments. Those can go to general And we have a full page on our website, and it's right on the homepage as well.

The, the Smithers, um, town of Smith's website, parks and open spaces right at the front. We wanna make sure this is quite transparent and there's, uh, a variety of background information, uh, that's available reports to council, the current bylaw, the draft bylaw, and the list of 12 potential parks, um, to contain the, uh, temporary overnight sheltering area

Um, let me just have a look here. I think that's probably everything. Um, just want to encourage people to, to come and share their, uh, comments and feedback and, uh, if community members have any questions, um, they can, uh, feel free to get questions about the process, um, or how they can engage, uh, regarding this update.

Uh, we encourage them to, to contact us, uh, prior to the meeting. Mm-hmm. . Okay. Great. Thanks so much for speaking with me. Will. Excellent. Not a problem. Have a good day.

You've been listening to C I C K. If you have any hot tips or news stories you think we should cover, contact us at cic k news smithers or follow us on Facebook at CIC k News cac. K News is made possible by the government of Canada and the Community Radio Fund of Canada, the only organization mandated to financially supporting campus and community radio stations across Canada.

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