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Victoria considering new rules as tonnes of property seized from encampments

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As the sun rises on Pandora Avenue in Victoria, bylaw officers walk the street, announcing their presence to people who are asleep in their tents.

It’s an unwelcome wakeup call for many — one they’ve become resigned to as it repeats, day after day.

“As soon as I open up my eyes, I’m traumatized right away,” said Chris Williams, who regularly sleeps on Pandora.

“You wake up and you’re put in hyper mode.”

The bylaw officers are there to enforce city rules that ensure public spaces can be accessed safely by everyone. They often seize people’s property in the process.

“When I wake up I go, ‘Jeez, am I going to have clothes at the end of the day?'” said Williams, noting he’s previously had his tent, money and medicine impounded.

City council is poised to approve changes to its impounding rules next week.

TONNES OF MATERIAL IMPOUNDED WEEKLY

Bylaw officers seize up to 10 tonnes of material each week, according to a report from Victoria’s bylaw director, Shannon Perkins.

“As fast as we’re trying to get humanitarian aid to people, it is being thrown out by the tonnes by bylaw,” said outreach worker Niki Ottosen.

If it’s not tossed, the property is put in storage for 30 days, so it can be reclaimed. Prior to that, the items are photographed, tagged and screened for hazardous material, the report said.

“In all, impounding and returning unlawfully placed property can easily consume over 500 labour hours in a month,” Perkins wrote.

PROPOSED CHANGES INCLUDE ESCALATING FINES

To streamline the process, Perkins is proposing storage time drop from 30 days to 14 days.

She’s also recommending city staff be given more discretion to discard material that “is clearly identifiable as rubbish, hazardous or bulky items, rather than being required to impound, transport and document such items.”

Mayor Marianne Alto and the rest of city council have indicated they’re in favour of the changes, on which they’ll vote Thursday.

“It’s just bringing order to a process that none of us like, let’s be clear,” Alto said.

Council will also consider fees that escalate each time someone has property impounded. Fees for essential items such as tents and sleeping bags would be exempt.

“People wonder why they see people in such bad shape outside,” Ottosen said. “Because they’re constantly having their survival gear taken from them.”

CITY SPENDING OVER $1M ON ENCAMPMENT ENFORCEMENT

Instead of amending the impounding bylaw, Ottosen wants the city to do away with it.

“It’s a cycle that needs to end, because it’s fruitless and it serves no one,” she said.

The city told CTV News it spends roughly $660,000 annually for bylaw officers to do encampment enforcement. It also pays for two Victoria police officers to accompany them, which cost $357,430 from January through October.

“It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money,” Ottosen said.

She wants governments to spend more money on housing than enforcement — something Alto said is coming, albeit slowly.

“Is there a better way to do this? Yes,” Alto said. “The better way to do this is to have people housed.”

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