VICTORIA -- Just two days after homeless campers were ordered to leave Centennial Square, Victoria city council voted Thursday to allow camping in the public square amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The camp was first shut down on Sep. 1 due to an “entrenched criminal element” found in the encampment.

More than a dozen people have been arrested following an undercover drug-trafficking investigation at the encampment and multiple stabbings and assaults have taken place at the square.

On Monday, Victoria city staff submitted a report to council that outlined several recommendations on how to improve safety at encampments that have been established in public parks.

The report listed several parks and Centennial Square as areas where staff recommend camps be prohibited.

At a committee of the whole meeting Thursday, city council voted to amend the recommendation to remove Centennial Square as one of the prohibited camping areas.

The other areas where staff recommended banning camping are:

• Summit Park (Hillside-Quadra)

• Moss Rocks Park (Fairfield)

• MacDonald Park (James Bay)

• South Park (James Bay)

• Robert Porter Park (Fairfield)

• David Spencer Park (Oaklands)

• Community gardens and horticultural areas have also been added to the list of prohibited camping areas.

The parks were chosen due to their proximity to schools or because of environmental concerns, according to city staff.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and councillors Charlayne Thornton-Joe and Jeremy Loveday opposed allowing camping in Centennial Square.

Five city councillors – Geoff Young, Sarah Potts, Ben Isitt, Sharmarke Dubow and Marianne Alto – approved of the amendment.

Some councillors, including Young and Isitt, said that allowing camping at the square would help city councillors understand what other Victoria residents experience when living near homeless encampments. 

Campers will be allowed back to the square after city staff complete remediation and deem the area safe. It is currently unknown how long the restoration will take.