Our Humanitarian Responsibility to those Sheltering in Parks: A Conversation with Betty Lepps

juin 30, 2022
Park People

In the lead-up to The Park People Conference, happening September 21-23, 2022, Park People met with Betty Lepps, Vancouver Park Board’s new Director of Urban Relationships. In her previous role at BC Housing, Betty co-led the housing of over 280 folks from Strathcona Park. She was also instrumental in developing the first Indigenous restorative justice court in Calgary. With a background in Childcare Leadership and Social Work, Betty’s work on systemic change with vulnerable populations is highly lauded at municipal, ministerial, community and national levels.

The Park People Conference, focused on the theme of abundance, will showcase new ways to build partnerships, attract resources, create spaces and deliver impact in city parks.

Registration for the Park People Conference is now open.



Jodi Lastman: What do you see as the city’s responsibilities to people who are sheltering in parks?

Betty Lepps: Everyone who lives in a city is a constituent. As a constituent, each person is entitled to basic rights, well-being and dignity. The city provides indoor and outdoor amenities that exist to support the well-being of its constituents. That extends to everyone – including those who are sheltering in parks.

It’s about thinking in terms of equity vs. equality. We can’t give each individual park user what they need. But in terms of equality, everyone deserves to be able to experience the well-being benefits that parks exist to offer. Parks are a human service that exists to support people’s well-being. We need to make sure that human service is universally available to everyone who lives in a city.

That’s equality and that has to hold true whether you’re in the park walking, pushing a stroller, using a wheelchair, biking, or whether the park is where you shelter.

But, I want to emphasize that supporting the well-being of constituents in a city is not just the responsibility of the people who run the city. It’s the responsibility of every person who lives in that city. People sheltering in parks are part of the life of the city and their rights and well-being are the responsibility of every person who lives there.


Distro Disco is a mobile “free store” that operates to provide essential supplies to residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Credit: Jackie Dives for Distro Disco


JL: What would need to happen in your mind, for people to make space for one another in our common park spaces?

BL: Four things: communication, understanding, respect and collaboration.

Listen, everyone has a story. Building relationships is about hearing each others’ stories so we can break down stigma, shame and false narratives.

In my role as Director of Urban Relationships, the first of its kind in the country, I see myself as a conduit bringing different people together to really hear each other’s stories.

One thing I’ve learned working in community development for 35 years, it takes a long time to create systemic change. But the conversation is what keeps it going. 

Without communication and understanding, people create their own narratives about each other. They become deeply disconnected and start to believe false narratives. They may think: “these people are not like me”, “these people are unsafe,” or “this is what these people need.” We have a lot of colonial practices that are barriers to listening and understanding each other.

Unhoused people living in parks is not a one-system issue. Vancouver Park Board has to be involved, fire has to be involved, health has to be involved, the city, the province, housing, and people that live in the neighbourhood. So many parties have to be involved. But, it’s an incredible opportunity to create systemic change. If we build toward collaboration, communication, understanding, and respect, we can keep the conversation going.


Halifax’s People’s Park encampment organizes a volunteer-run meal program that sees community members sign up to cook meals to share with their unhoused neighbours.


JL: What is the most important shift we need to make to treat those sheltering in parks with humanity?

BL: Most importantly, we need to change our culture. For us to have parks and recreation services that serve the people they’re intended to serve we need to effectively listen and hear each other’s stories.

That’s the only way we can change the story that’s in our heads and change the culture.

Right now, we think this issue is everyone else’s responsibility or jurisdiction to “deal with.” Yes, we need to have bylaws and set boundaries, but how can we do that without a heavy hand? Without ticketing? How about conversation? Let’s start with conversation.

There’s no simple way to “deal with it.” The only way to “deal with it” is systemic change and that takes deep listening. When that happens, diverse people will be able to enjoy parks that serve their spiritual, physical and emotional needs. Parks will be places where everyone feels safe and welcome, and where we enjoy making memories, in the way they need to.

That’s equity and humanitarian responsibility, and that’s where we need to go when it comes to people sheltering in our parks.


Registration for the Park People Conference is now open.

We hope you’ll join us at The Park People Conference, September 21-23, 2022.

Cover photo: MABELLEarts Outdoor Winter Food Pantry. Credit: MABELLEarts

Presenting Sponsor

TD Ready Commitment