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A message is written on a door outside a tent at a homeless encampment at Strathcona Park in Vancouver on Oct. 7, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Vancouver’s park board has created a new position to manage the homeless population that has taken up residence in local parks, as tent encampments on public land continue to pose a major challenge for the city.

Betty Lepps, who had worked with BC Housing as the agency’s regional director for shelter and supportive housing, will become the city’s director of urban relations. The position appears to be a first for a Canadian city, according to Vancouver Park Board.

Donnie Rosa, the board’s general manager, has been trying for several months to figure out solutions for an encampment at Crab Park in downtown Vancouver. Ms. Lepps’s job will be to work with people living in any park camps to make life safe for them, while also trying to work out a more permanent housing strategy. She will also oversee ways to make the parks equally safe for those visiting them.

“Folks seeking shelter in parks overnight, that’s not going away. That’s something we need to pay attention to and it can’t be off the side of someone’s desk,” said Mx. Rosa. “You need a specific set of skills and Betty has everything from ability to drive politics to being on the ground.”

Cities across the U.S. and Canada have been struggling to deal with large encampments in city parks for several years, a phenomenon that grew during the pandemic. Officials have tried various strategies. Toronto, Halifax and Los Angeles have forcibly hauled off people and their belongings; Vancouver, Victoria and Seattle have tried to coax people into shelters and social housing.

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Suburban cities in B.C’s Lower Mainland have sometimes seen small encampments form in parks, but nothing like what Vancouver has experienced.

At the moment, there are about 30 to 40 people sleeping overnight at Crab Park, which sits between Burrard Inlet and Gastown. The park board tried to get an injunction to clear the park, but a Supreme Court judge declined late January to grant one, saying there wasn’t appropriate housing for people living there to go to.

Mx. Rosa said the current strategy at the park will be to designate a limited area where people can have their tents. The board will provide access to water and electricity for phone chargers, but also direct people to the ample services in the Downtown Eastside for food and showers.

Ms. Lepps was heavily involved a year ago with the weeks-long joint effort by the city, park board and province to move homeless people in the tent encampment at Strathcona Park and into transitional or permanent housing. The encampment, which eventually drew more than 200 people, occupied most of the park for almost a year. It became the site of several violent incidents, and generated complaints from residents in the surrounding neighbourhood who were alarmed at a surge of break-ins and threatening behaviour.

The park board and Mx. Rosa were praised by some for their relatively less-confrontational approach to wind down the Strathcona encampment, but some housing advocates find Ms. Lepps’s appointment dubious.

“BC Housing was not open to a collaborative approach with camp residents and leaders,” said Fiona York, who worked with residents of three recent homeless camps to get them services and the right kind of housing. The park board, she says, has seemed more interested in superficial collaboration rather than real dialogue.

However, she also thinks the appointment might be a sign of change.

“This appointment, and the recent provincial budget that sets aside $4-million for ‘encampment support,’ at least acknowledges that encampments exist and are here to stay at least until suitable housing is available for everyone – and that people staying in parks need to be treated humanely and with dignity,” Ms. York said.

Ms. Lepps, whose new position was advertised at a salary range of $115,000 to $142,000, is the latest in a string of people at senior levels who have recently left BC Housing. That includes Armin Amrolia, the agency’s vice-president for development strategies who departed after 32 years to become a deputy city manager at Vancouver city hall.

Vancouver has seen people living in parks in large encampments off and on for years. Some sprang up sporadically in the early 2000s, as homelessness dramatically increased in the region when the new Liberal government stopped building social housing and cut welfare rates, while more entrenched settlements in Oppenheimer Park followed by Strathcona Park have emerged in the last four years.

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