VICTORIA -- Victoria city staff are recommending that the municipality enact temporary bylaw amendments that would place restrictions on homeless encampments, such as limiting how large a shelter can be and where the camps can be established.

The bylaw amendments are intended to improve the safety of campers and surrounding communities amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Staff recommend that campers continue to be allowed to stay 24/7 at select parks, but also suggest that shelters be limited to a certain size and that tents must be spaced at least four metres apart.

The spacing, as well as a recommended maximum shelter space of three metres by three metres, will reduce environmental impacts on park property and will reduce the risk of virus transmission or a fire from spreading, say city staff.

Staff add that the spacing requirements are based on the provincial government’s organized sheltering site that was set up at Topaz Park near the onset of the pandemic, before campers were moved to hotels.

In addition to placing a limit on how large a shelter can be, staff are recommending that tents must be placed at least 50 metres away from schools.

“In recent weeks, concerns have been raised in the community about the impacts of sheltering on local school operations,” reads a staff report submitted to council.

“At South Park School, issues relating to property damage, human waste and hazardous debris that would pose risks to students, faculty and volunteers have been the focus of staff from both the school district and city,” the report added.

City staff are also recommending that community gardens and horticultural areas – as well as six more municipal parks and Centennial Square – be added to the list of areas where camping is prohibited.

To ensure that these new suggested bylaw amendments are followed, staff are recommending that more than $500,000 be added to the city’s bylaw services department for the remainder of this year and for 2021.

Staff say that bylaw resources are already stretched thin due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that more officers will be needed to enforce the new proposed homeless encampment rules.

“Creation of clear rules for sheltering in the parks alone is not sufficient,” reads the staff report. “Adequate resources, in the form of additional bylaw officers, to enforce these rules are also necessary.”

Staff say that bylaw officers will begin with warnings and educational efforts “intended to achieve voluntary compliance” before moving to firmer enforcement, like tickets or other methods for campers.

“This comprehensive and integrated approach is considered the most likely to achieve positive results and is recommended, if council is not supportive of the recommended approach, direction on an alternative approach is required,” reads the staff report.

These temporary bylaw amendments would remain in place until 30 days after the province’s state of emergency due to COVID-19 is lifted.

The staff recommendations will be reviewed by Victoria city council on Thursday.