City of Victoria faces hefty bill to repair parks used for shelter during pandemic

The City of Victoria's parks staff says it will cost more than $500,000 to repair damage caused by people sheltering in parks during the pandemic.

In a report to city councillors, staff identified more than 140 locations in 10 city parks with visible impacts to both manicured and natural spaces. The report says the extended duration of outdoor sheltering had major implications for the parks, which it says “were not designed for such purposes.”

According to the report to be presented to council on Sept. 9, the city’s iconic Beacon Hill Park suffered the most damage, with 90 manicured and natural spaces affected by shelters that remained in place 24 hours a day in 2020 and 2021.

In order to restore the most heavily damaged areas, parks staff have developed a multi-year program. Beginning in 2022, restoration efforts will focus on the city’s vast natural park areas, including rare and sensitive ecological areas.

The price tag for the three year restoration program is pegged at $535,000.

“I’m actually surprised it’s not more,” said Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps. “Staff have done a really thorough assessment, so I’m surprised it’s not more. I’m glad it’s not more.”

At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, many of the agencies providing shelter to Victoria’s homeless population were forced to close to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Victoria city councillors voted to allow people to shelter in parks as a way to self-isolate during the pandemic. As shelter space was made available through the government housing programs, council voted to end 24-hour camping in parks as of May 1, 2021.

“Its very expensive to have people living in public spaces, because they’re not homes,” said Helps. “That’s why we need to get people in to housing.”

The report goes on to say the shelters remaining in place 24 hours a day led to substantial impact to the parks, such as soil compaction and contamination.

Helps says work has already begun to repair and restore some of the manicured areas by reseeding lawns. She says work to remove invasive species and ensure the parks’ biodiversity is intact, in addition to the repair of culturally sensitive areas, will take more time to complete.

“It’s expensive, but it is work that will be done over the next few years,” said Helps. “Staff is really just bringing it before council for our information. There’s no decision requested, (the remediation) will just become part of the work that they do.”

Work for repairs and remediation in the damaged parks is expected to be complete in late 2024.