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UPDATED: Campers forced from Nelson City Hall after 3-month housing protest

The camp was cleared out Wednesday morning
An encampment outside Nelson City Hall is torn down June 26. The tents had been pitched as a protest following the closure of a local social services hub.

As Nelson police and bylaw officers looked on, Sasha Vulic packed her belongings and disassembled the tent she has lived in for three months.

Vulic was one of six people ordered to evict from the front lawn of Nelson City Hall by Wednesday morning. An encampment had been set up at the location to protest the closure of a social services hub, but this week the city decided the demonstration had run its course and gave residents 48 hours to leave.

Not everyone being evicted was there for the protest. Vulic, who has lived outdoors in the Kootenays for eight years, had planned to stay at city hall even prior to the protest's start. Now she wasn't sure where she would go.

“Has anyone ever been only given like five days notice to move from somewhere unless they've done something wrong? Which we haven't. In most cities, city parks are open all summer always as long as it's not freezing cold for people who live outdoors," said Vulic.

Tents appeared at city hall in March shortly after the Coordinated Access Hub was shut down. The Hub offered unhoused people a variety of health and society services under one roof. The site wasn't housing, but it provided a safe, warm space for people to go. It opened in July 2021 but was shut down this spring due to a decrease in federal funding and the loss of an operating grant.

The encampment meanwhile varied in number of residents and tents until Monday when the city posted a notice of trespassing that also prevents any future structures on the site. The clean-up Wednesday was peaceful and included assistance from Nelson Fire and Rescue as well as Nelson Street Outreach. 

Mayor Janice Morrison said it was time for the protest to end. 

“It's been there for three months, and we have a business to run there. It's not only just the City of Nelson, but we have provincial offices housed in there and we have to balance the needs of the entire community, and we need to have that safe access to city and provincial services that are in that building.”

Nelson has several subsidized housing sites, but the only one dedicated to people experiencing or at-risk of homelessness has been mostly empty since last fall.

The North Shore Inn was purchased in 2022 by the provincial government to create supportive housing for people experiencing or at-risk of homelessness. But BC Housing said the site does not have sufficient water and electrical services to allow for full occupancy. As of April only seven people were living at the site despite it having 30 available units.

Morrison said the city has been working with BC Housing to get North Shore Inn reopened. She credited the city hall protest for putting a spotlight on Nelson's housing needs and said it has not gone unnoticed by the provincial government.

“We need to get people housing because we all know the determinants of health is that you have to have that roof over your head, you have to have that stability before you can see improvements in other health indicators.”

It's not clear when North Shore Inn will reopen, but Morrison said she hopes to have it reoccupied by late fall or perhaps earlier. A spokesperson for BC Housing told the Nelson Star they could not provide an estimated timeline for the completion of the renovations.

City council meanwhile will consider amendments to its parks bylaw on July 2 that are meant to avoid any potential constitutional challenges to evicting the campers.

A 2008 decision by the B.C. Supreme Court ruled unhoused people must be allowed to camp temporarily in public parks if a city cannot provide alternate sites. That was upheld a year later by the B.C. Court of Appeal.

In a brief to council, city staff say the current bylaw prohibiting camping in all city parks and public lands runs contrary to the law. 

The proposed bylaw instead allows for temporary shelters of 100 square feet to be in place from 7 p.m. to 9 a.m., but stipulates they cannot be on the green space around city hall, within parks including Lakeside, Gyro, Rosemont, Cottonwood, Lions, Queen Elizabeth or Chatham Street, and at the Nelson and District Community Complex, the Scout Hall, Hall Street Plaza, Hall Street Pier and the Civic Centre.

Those are the same locations where last year city council banned public drug consumption.

Tyler Harper

About the Author: Tyler Harper

I’m editor-reporter at the Nelson Star, where I’ve worked since 2015.
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