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New rules about camping in Sarnia’s parks

But will it make a difference at the encampment?
A homeless encampment at Sarnia's Rainbow Park is rapidly increasing in size.

City council took action Monday to stop future encampments in most Sarnia parks, but it’s not clear the extensive new restrictions will make a difference at Rainbow Park.

The south end park – where about 50 people experiencing homelessness have camped for months – is exempt from the new rules and the city’s existing Trespass to Property Act, said acting city solicitor Randi Kalar.

“The difficulty is (these rules) can be used for emerging or new encampments,” she told council.  “The problem continues to be using that Act to remove an entrenched encampment.”

Once formally approved, the new rules will restrict encampments in many city parks, Kalar said.

However, she said the city has to be careful not to restrict camping for the homeless in every area of every park because of legal precedent that says it’s their right to pitch a tent if there is no shelter space that is accessible to them.

Kalar also warned that city police won’t “clear” Rainbow Park without a court injunction.  Council decided at its last meeting not to go after an injunction, which could prove to be a lengthy and expensive process with no guarantee of success.

Deputy Police Chief Julie Craddock confirmed Kalar’s assessment of the situation following Monday’s meeting.

“I have spoken to the chief and our position is unchanged in that the now entrenched encampment at Rainbow Park will still require an injunction to allow the police to facilitate the removal of occupants,” Craddock told The Journal. 

“We have never been asked by the city to remove anyone that is living in Rainbow Park,” she added. “We will continue to provide a response to calls for service and a police presence in the park and the nearby community as resources permit.”

The encampment dominated Monday’s council meeting, coming up again and again as local politicians and city staff tried to find a solution that is legal, appeases the neighbours, and ensures Sarnia’s homeless population is addressed.

Resident Michelle Davis spoke to council as a concerned grandmother, a friend to the neighbours and “a former enabler.”

The encampment raises serious concerns for the neighbourhood, which held a peaceful protest June 28 against the dangers and crime surrounding Rainbow Park, Davis said.

Tent fires, theft, drugs, human trafficking, and overdoses characterize the encampment and make the park dangerous to the neighbours and their children, she said.

Davis said the new protocols for camping in city parks were written without input from the residents.

“The neighbours need a voice,” she said, asking council for 24/7 security, as well as the immediate ejection of anyone known to have judicial orders not to be near playgrounds, a daily sweep for illicit drugs, bylaw enforcement and more transparency.

The city hired daytime security for Rainbow Park in June and CAO Chris Carter said Monday he will search for more security firms, and possibly police, to work at night. Carter later said he will also “look into” expanding the hours that washrooms are available to the encampment.

At Mayor Mike Bradley’s request, Carter said legal vetting of the new restrictions for park camping will be done quickly and implementation can go ahead without another city council meeting.

Coun. Brian White told Davis that he knows “patience is running thin.”

“I want you to know you have a whole council here that is listening,” he said.

Coun. Bill Dennis drew attention to the fact that the meeting was being held virtually because of an investigation involving him and staff safety and health.

Council listens to Michelle Davis, (at bottom, second from left) who pleaded for action to remove the Rainbow Park encampment.

“Michelle, if I could I’d give you a hug,” Dennis said.  “But I can’t because we are on this ridiculous Zoom meeting.”

Dennis said he would have given those in Rainbow Park “the bum’s rush” and went on to criticize his fellow councillors for inaction.

“These guys say they care. They really don’t,” he said. “Actions speak louder than words.”

The mayor replied that he has taken action numerous times whenever there’s a complaint related to Rainbow Park, calling the police who are frequently there laying charges.  Police may not be in a position to remove the encampment but that doesn’t stop them from laying charges when laws are broken there, Bradley said.

All of council supported the new protocols to restrict camping in local parks except for Coun. Dave Boushy and Coun. Terry Burrell.

“At this point, we are just spinning our wheels,” Burrell said.  He said measures already taken by the city to provide washrooms, security and lighting in Rainbow Park are “enabling” the encampment.

Burrell asked for an August meeting to ensure council is on top of the encampment issue.  He also requested a financial report on the cost to the city for providing security and washrooms in the park.

Both Bradley and White said they hope to hear good news this summer from the provincial government about paying for some of the costs associated with homelessness.

“The big question here is that money should flow to the city, not the county,” Bradley said. 

In a 7-2 vote, council approved a long list of rules that are similar to protocols enacted in other cities like London and Hamilton. 

Once they are vetted by a third-party to ensure constitutionality, Sarnia will be in a position to have tents removed if they are:

• within 100 metres of play equipment, pools, schools, childcare centres, and residential property;

• erected within five metres of transit stops, highways, construction zones, sidewalks/roadways and paths;

• within cemeteries, off-leash dog areas, community gardens, sidewalks/pathways, paths, under bridges, or blocking fire hydrants;

• within 50 metres of sports fields, multi use courts, bleachers, lakes, beaches, ponds, watercourses and docks.

The new rules specify that no tents will be allowed in Canatara Park, Centennial Park or Germain Park, waterfront beaches or on Howard Watson Trail. 

Where it is still possible to locate, tents cannot number more than 15 per property (or 20 persons), whichever is greater.

If reported, campers who contravene the new protocols will be given 24 hours to relocate or be removed by bylaw officers and police, according to the draft.



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