Skip to content

Nelson council lays out where and when unhoused residents may camp

Council names allowable locations and time, and sets out rules about personal belongings
An encampment outside Nelson City Hall was torn down June 26. The tents had been pitched as a protest following the closure of a local social services hub.

The City of Nelson passed a bylaw at its July 2 meeting that defines where and when unhoused people may camp overnight.

This comes after the city cleared an encampment from the lawn in front of Nelson City Hall on June 26 that had been set up as a protest against the city's lack of affordable housing and the closure of a social services centre. 

Until now, the city's parks bylaw has prohibited camping in all parks and public spaces. But that prohibition has existed in contravention of a 2015 B.C. Supreme Court decision which declared overnight shelter on public land a constitutional right under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, if a city does not offer other shelter options.

The change will bring Nelson's bylaw in line with that court decision by allowing overnight camping on city land, but it will allow it only in certain places and times. The bylaw, passed unanimously, must still come before the next council meeting for final approval.

"The key point is, as a city, we don't see encampments as the answer," Mayor Janice Morrison told the Nelson Star. "We want to do long-term planning. We want to be getting these people into homes. Encampments aren't a viable solution."

The new rules state that no one may camp in the following parks: Gyro, Lakeside, Cottonwood, Rosemont, Queen Elizabeth, Chatham Street, and Lions. Camping is also prohibited at City Hall, the Hall Street Plaza, the Hall Street Pier, and the Nelson and District Community Complex. The prohibition also includes a 10-metre radius around the Civic Centre and around the Scout Hall. 

This list, with the addition of City Hall, is the same list of prohibited areas that the city used during the recent and short-lived decriminalization of public use of certain drugs. Consumption of drugs was not allowed at those locations, Morrison said, because there were areas where children and families tend to congregate. The city borrowed the same list for this new purpose of prohibiting overnight camping. 

Camping on other public land in the city will be allowed, but these areas are not listed in the bylaw. Councillor Jesse Pineiro asked what public land would be available for camping, given the extensive list of prohibited areas. The only suggestion given by city staff in the meeting was the land along the dog walk.

Asked about this after the meeting, Morrison said the city has no list of allowed overnight camping places, but she said there are other public areas and parks.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Margot Young, a law professor at the University of British Columbia specializing in constitutional and social justice law, says the right to camp overnight in public spaces trumps other considerations, including public access to parks, because it is a right under Section 7 of the Charter. That section guarantees "the life, liberty and personal security" of all Canadians.

"A key aspect of any civic decision-making process must be prioritizing any constitutional rights that are at stake," Young told the Nelson Star. "Our legal system holds respect for these rights to be mandatory."

Young said cities may make decisions to allow overnight shelter in some but not in all public spaces and parks, and many cities have done this. But she said cities' choices of allowed camping location must not be so restrictive as to breach the Charter.

She said the public places where overnight camping is allowed should be reasonably numerous and accessible. This question has not yet come before the courts "but it is foreseeable," she said, that cities will be required to ensure that services are accessible from temporary nighttime shelters.

"Public space open to nighttime shelter should be close to services necessary to this very vulnerable group."

Rules about overnight shelter sites

According to Nelson's new bylaw, overnight sheltering in public areas such as the dog walk that are not on the above prohibition list will only be allowed between 7 p.m. and 9 a.m. and the tent or shelter must be no larger than 100 square feet. Temporary shelters must be at least two metres apart.

At 9 a.m., campers in those areas must pack up their shelter and belongings. If they wish to store their belongings at the site, they must pack them in a container not larger than 36 square feet in size. They may stay there with their belongings and are not required to physically leave. 

At the council meeting there was some discussion of enforcement, with concern expressed by Pineiro and Councillor Leslie Payne that personal possessions would be disposed of. Payne expressed concern about the bylaw's direction to " immediately dispose of any item removed."

The city's corporate officer Sarah Winton said that if belongings are not packed up according to the bylaw and appear to be abandoned, they will be put in the garbage. If they are packaged according to the bylaw and abandoned, they will be held by the city for 30 days for the owner to reclaim, as is done with any lost items in other circumstances. Those details are not explicitly stated in the bylaw. 

Morrison said enforcement of these rules would be complaint driven. She said enforcement would be done in a manner that is educational and not punitive so that unhoused people and the public have time to learn about the new bylaw.

City manager Kevin Cormack said there are human rights issues involved.

"We are not going to be out enforcing things that are not going to stand up from a human rights perspective," he said. "We are not (going to be) removing people's personal stuff unless it has clearly been abandoned or we have told them to clean it up and they have not been able to do that."

Young told the Nelson Star this part of the bylaw is fraught with potential problems because "seizure and destruction of personal belongings amplify marginalization of unhoused people, increasing social inequality, negative health outcomes, and marginalization. For unhoused individuals, personal belongings have particular significance; it is all they have in the world. These belongings allow for survival, especially in outdoor spaces."

Councillor Jesse Woodward said during the meeting that the bylaw will be successful in striking a balance "between people in need, community safety, our bylaw officers, police, emergency services. It is a huge undertaking to try to find the balance here. I appreciative this bylaw – it gives us more tools to work with."

Asked where council expects unhoused people to spend their nights after the bylaw, and in the fall and winter, Morrison said she hopes the North Shore Inn will be re-opened by the fall with up to 30 units available. The inn, which is owned by BC Housing, has been closed to all but seven residents since last fall when it was discovered water and electrical renovations were required.

Morrison said the city has been in discussions with B.C. Housing, which owns the site, attempting to speed up the current renovations. But last month a BC Housing spokesperson told the Nelson Star it had no estimated timeline for when the renovations would be completed.


Bill Metcalfe

About the Author: Bill Metcalfe

I have lived in Nelson since 1994 and worked as a reporter at the Nelson Star since 2015.
Read more