Opinion » Pique'n Yer Interest

Does Whistler need its own tent city?



Last week, we learned of the sizeable illegal encampment that's been operating within earshot of the Upper Village—on a small island in Fitzsimmons Creek, near the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre.

Judging by the amount of trash hauled out, the camp was no joke. Workers removed three truckloads of garbage and gear, and picked up somewhere in the ballpark of 2,000 cigarette butts.

The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) farmed the cleanup of the site out to a private contractor because it didn't have the "resources or equipment" to do it "in a timely manner." (Fourth time they've done that this year.)

According to the contractor, Adrian Moran, the encampment, which had around a dozen individual campsites, was hidden in plain sight. Campers used "stick structures to make it more covered."

Given the amount of trash that was pulled out, it seems like those "stick structures" were quite effective.

The campers were likely there for a while—snowboard boots were among the items found. Located in a popular area, it's hard to see how the camp stayed off the RMOW's radar.

In a statement to Pique, a spokesperson for the RMOW explained that the municipality is stepping up its efforts on stopping illegal car camping and focusing on education when it comes to illegal camping.

So far in 2018, municipal workers have issued 731 tickets to people living in their vehicles—that's more than double the 276 that was handed out in 2017.

"(Bylaw) have focused their efforts related to camping/tenting on managing attractants education, and referrals to WCSS (The Whistler Community Services Society) for additional resources," said the spokesperson.

It's an interesting approach. But I wonder, just where could it lead?

Last week I travelled to Nanaimo, where my uncle—a deckhand who's worked out of the harbour for over 30 years—drove me by his city's newest attraction: The growing "tent city" steps from the downtown core.

A mix of tents, old vehicles, tarps, and garbage, it's been going strong since May. Tremendously divisive, it has led to clashes. On one side, there are people who say the tent city is a symptom of a broken system and underlines the need for more social housing. On the other, there are people who say it has led to an uptick in crime and want it gone.

Yet tearing down some tent cities is easier said than done, as housing advocates have come to the campers' defense. Last month, the B.C. Supreme Court turned down the City of Nanaimo's request that it be allowed to tear down its tent city on the grounds that it poses a fire risk.

Unless the city can prove there is adequate social housing, getting the courts to allow governments to go forward with demolitions could be a tough sell, despite the unpopularity of the encampments.

Victoria is another good example. In 2015, a tent city set up there, on a beautiful tree-lined piece of land behind the Victoria courthouse lawn. To the horror of neighbours—who were upset to find used syringes in their quaint, affluent neighbourhood—it wasn't dismantled until August 2016, after the province made significant efforts to provide long-term housing to the tent-city residents.

In total, Victoria's tent city forced the province to spend $50 million on temporary shelters, permanent housing, and outreach and management.

The money went towards three major housing projects located around the city, resulting in more than 250 new permanent supportive-housing units. It was a huge, historic win for housing advocates.

Whistler's housing crisis is, of course, very different than the ones facing Nanaimo and Victoria, where substance abuse and mental health are a major factor. We, rather, have a contingent of ambitious, outdoorsy homeless residents who contribute to the economy and have been forced into the margins by a lack of adequate planning.

(One look at Craigslist proves how dire things have become.)

One problem, I think, is that Whistler's homelessness is largely invisible. That makes it easy for policy makers to take incremental steps towards addressing the problem, rather than push for the ambitious projects that could bring immediate relief but piss off some people along the way.

Perhaps a real tent city could finally force them to act?

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