Homelessness

After the campers

We spent a day with a clean-up effort in Beacon Hill Park

By Tori Marlan
May 23, 2021
Homelessness

After the campers

We spent a day with a clean-up effort in Beacon Hill Park

By Tori Marlan
May 23, 2021
Millie and Jim. Photo: Tori Marlan / Capital Daily
Homelessness

After the campers

We spent a day with a clean-up effort in Beacon Hill Park

By Tori Marlan
May 23, 2021
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After the campers
Millie and Jim. Photo: Tori Marlan / Capital Daily

Millie Modeste and Donna White are in Beacon Hill Park hashing out the wording of a Thank You sign. It’s May 15, and the city’s tolerance for round-the-clock sheltering in parks has ended. For the past couple of weeks, residents of the tent encampments have been clearing out, moving into indoor spaces as they become available. With the final moving day for the campers fast approaching, Modeste has organized a clean-up effort at the park. “We want a sign that sort of says, ‘We want to hand the camp back to you, you know, even better than—’” Modeste’s voice trails off.  “I don't know how you put it.” 

White—who’s tasked with lettering the poster board—is lying on the ground near the Children’s Farm, a Sharpie in her hand, a cowboy hat on her head, a skeptical look on her face. “That defeats the purpose of us fighting for the tenting people, though,” she says. 

White, 69, has lived in a van for 18 years. Modeste, who’s in her early 50s, recently lived in a van for eight months with her husband, Jim Harris. 

“No, no, this is a separate initiative from that,” explains Modeste. “This is just about the community that did accept us, that were rallying behind us, like Red Cedar Cafe, like the homeless coalition, like the fire department when the tents were on fire.”

“Right. I know,” says White. “I mean, the thing is, that's kind of defeating the purpose that we fought for— to have tents here—if we say we're giving it back to them.” 

White presses Modeste on what she wants to communicate.  

“We’re thanking the community that was here for us,” Modeste says.

“But how are we thanking them?” White asks. 

“By making sure that the park is left for everybody's enjoyment as well,” says Modeste, adding, “we're trying to help CRD out so they're not overworking their staff.” 

White still isn’t satisfied: “In a roundabout way, we’re making an apology.”

Modeste definitely doesn’t want the sign to sound apologetic: “We don't have anything to apologize for. We were homeless because of COVID. It was a bad time.” 

Then she half-jokingly says, “Why don't we just thank the peacocks and the squirrels for the space and go from there.”   

The women laugh and then settle on a message. 

***

A few days earlier, Modeste had carefully crafted another message, one she’d texted to more than a dozen people:  

Calling all Beacon/Meegan covid homeless crisis campers and our awesome supporters!!!! Our work and duty is not yet done.  We owe it to our community and nature to do a huge final clean up of Beacon Park. . . . Jim and Millie are asking for your help one last time! . . .  .let's go out with a bang!!! Ya boy!!!. . . .You survived homelessness, I know you will dress for the task. See you on Saturday at 10:00 May15!

After pushing back two previous target deadlines, BC Housing had finally come through with enough indoor spaces for everyone in Victoria’s tent communities. As a result, the city announced that beginning May 1, it would resume enforcing the bylaw prohibiting daytime sheltering in parks, with exceptions made for those who’d accepted housing but were waiting for it to be ready or were in the process of moving. By the day of the clean-up, Tiny Homes Village, a neighbourhood of small homes made from converted shipping containers, was up and running (though not at capacity). A shelter operating out of a former warehouse on Russell Street, retrofitted with pods and storage lockers, had begun to accommodate some of the campers. Others had been able to move into a transitional shelter on Yates Street that used to house the Boys & Girls Club.

Modeste encouraged her friends to share her call-out for the clean-up, and they did. But she says another group—“people who have always opposed campers”— picked it up from social media and announced that it was having its own clean-up later in the day. 

Now, at Beacon Hill Park, Modeste suspects there’s been some confusion, because few volunteers have shown up at the appointed time. She and Harris wait for others near a supply table that Harris has stacked with face masks, plastic gloves, bottles of hand sanitizer, heavy-duty garbage bags, and “sharps collectors”— boxes designed for safe needle disposal. The Thank You sign is taped to the front. 

Kayla Mackay, the food outreach coordinator for Red Cedar Cafe, has brought boxes filled with steaming rhubarb crumble for breakfast. Cheese sticks and Gatorade are also being offered.

A 50-year-old camper named Chris Rigby wanders over. He worked as an electrician before the pandemic. When the jobs stopped coming and he could no longer afford rent, he set up a tent in the park. He’s been here for about a year.  Modeste plans to stop by his tent later. “I've got some paperwork on housing for you,” she tells him.  

Modeste is well known among those who’ve sheltered in the park. She says some even refer to her and Harris as the Mom and Pop of Beacon Hill. After being displaced during the pandemic, the couple found refuge here in their van. During that time, they became indispensable to the Beacon Hill Park community, organizing early morning clean-ups on the weekends, staffing the community care tent, connecting people to resources, and delivering meals provided by Red Cedar Cafe. They also travelled to other parks and to Pandora Street as self-appointed outreach workers, going wherever they believed they could be of help, offering food, clothing, and, even, harm reduction services and suicide intervention. “Millie saved about five lives already this year,” Harris says. “I've saved two.” 

Modeste used to work as an employment counsellor in First Nations communities, where she says she also gained experience in crisis intervention. Since moving into their  apartment in March, she and Harris have continued looking out for the city’s unhoused residents. Red Cedar Cafe took note of Modeste’s involvement in the community and recently hired her on a three-month contract to do food distribution and other forms of outreach.  

A little before 11am, Modeste decides it’s time to begin the clean-up, despite the low turnout. She shoves her phone in her bra, dons a pair of plastic gloves, grabs a garbage bag and a Tropicana jug filled with blue Gatorade, and then sets off with Harris and another volunteer. They split up as they head toward the stage area. 

Modeste’s phone rings repeatedly as she scours the ground. Most of the callers are volunteers who’ve arrived and are looking for instructions, or wanting to know where to find her. To one caller, who apologizes for not being able to make it on time, she says, “We’re off to a slow start only because there was some kerfuffle around start time. We’re not worried about it. We got the day.”

About 15 volunteers will eventually show up and fan out over the park. The park, well maintained as ever, appears not to need their help, but they will end up finding discarded wrappers, paper towels, food containers, one needle, a broken glass pipe, and  small pieces of garbage that easily could have been overlooked. After a few hours, they’ll have 12 waste bags filled a quarter of the way.  

Around midday, Modeste and White encounter two men carrying large white buckets. They’re from Save Beacon Hill Park, the group that organized the later-starting clean-up effort. One wears a neon vest and a hard hat. The groups merge and begin talking near a smattering of tents that are still standing and some worn down patches of grass that are cordoned off with yellow tape. Modeste laments that the city wasn’t “prepared for something as catastrophic as a homelessness issue.” The man without the hard hat blames globalism for the problem, holding forth on how he thinks homelessness is a consequence of factory jobs moving to China. As if to underscore his point, he asks White and Modeste, “If we had factories, would you work?”

“I do work,” Modeste tells him. White says she’s almost 70 and retired, adding that she works in the summers. The groups then go their separate ways.

Modeste and White eventually meet up with Harris and another volunteer in a secluded part of the park, not too far from a playground. White grabs a small pizza box off a bench and opens it to look inside. 

“A family with kids left this,” she says. “There are rocks in it. We don’t pick up rocks.” 

She empties the box and puts it in a garbage bag. 

Modeste agrees it wasn’t a camper’s mess: “The homeless don’t buy pizza and come here and eat.”

After a short cigarette break, the group scatters. Modeste heads in the direction of the gated rose garden. Standing in a field, outside a lone tent, Chris Rigby is holding up a disco ball, shining it with a cloth.  

It looks like he’s having a yard sale. His belongings are strewn about the ground or packed into large open bins or milk crates. There are clothes, shoes, lanterns, paintbrushes, backpacks. Art he’s made. Objects he’s found. Painted pieces of plexiglass; painted bike frames; even a box full of sticker labels he’s painted. There’s also a paper maché eagle, along with five bags of feathers that he’s collected and is planning to attach to it. He also has a plastic donkey figurine that he scooped up for $5.99 at Value Village. A basket full of cigarettes appears to be strapped to the donkey’s back, and when you tug on its ears, a cigarette from the basket gets ejected from under the donkey’s tail. (“I would have paid $50 for it,” he says.)

These are just some of the items Rigby has accumulated over the year he’s lived at the park. Before the pandemic, he was never unhoused, he says. He worked, had an apartment, camped only as a leisure activity.  

It’s been a hard year, he says, but also he’s made good friends—like Jason Bourassa, another tradesman, who became displaced for the first time after a break-up and has spent more than a year without housing. Bourassa says they’ve looked out for each other, watched each other’s belongings, and boosted each other’s morale when it’s been necessary. “We’ve had some really good times here,” he says, remembering potluck gatherings and BBQs they shared with other campers. “I’d never lived in a tight community like this before.” 

Rigby has been offered temporary housing at My Place, in the building that used to house the Boys & Girls Club. But he has mixed feelings about trading in his tent for what he calls a “cubicle,” especially now that the weather is nice. 

Modeste reminds him that it’s just an interim stop. As she promised to do earlier in the day, she hands him documents that he’ll need to fill out in order to apply for an apartment at Hockley House, in Langford. Funded by the Regional Housing First Program (a partnership between the CRD and the provincial and federal governments), the 120-unit building offers a mix of affordable housing options, including “provincial income assistance” apartments that are designated for people experiencing homelessness who can live independently. “We need to get you into that—this self-contained housing kind of environment,” she says.

“That sounds good,” Rigby tells her.  

Modeste knows that going from the park, or the street, into housing can be a hard adjustment, even if it’s a welcome move. 

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She and Harris feel grateful to have their own place now, she says, but “it took about a month before I stopped thinking that the guy down the hall upstairs could break into my apartment”—simply because she could hear him moving around. 

She says it’s common for people who spend a significant amount of time living outside to emerge from the experience with a hypersensitivity to noise. She and Harris joke about finally understanding their cat: “We know how she feels when she hears the vacuum.” 

Moving into a collective living environment can be especially hard for those sensitive to noise. “One of the things we're noticing with the groups going into housing now is there's definitely a post-traumatic stress component to moving into housing,” she says.

Bourassa doesn’t yet see himself as a good fit for any of the housing options campers have been offered. He’s taken down his tent, as required, but doesn’t yet feel comfortable sleeping inside. He says he plans to sleep under a tree “or wherever” for a while. But being unhoused is also stressful, he says:  “It’s nerve-racking all the time. You’re always watching your back. Whatever you have with you, you have to take with you and expect that whatever you left behind is going to be gone.”

Before he and Rigby became friends, he says, someone stole all of his belongings—twice.

Donations for the campers—rain gear, tents, blankets, clothing, and even cash—have been a lifesaver.

Rigby, who arrived last year with only a backpack, now has so much stuff that he can’t be sure it will all fit into a pod and storage locker. He’s even starting to doubt that he’ll be able to get it all packed up today. Surveying the ground, he realizes it’s a lost cause and decides to stay another night in the park. He tells Bourassa he has to go down to the shelter and tell them not to expect him until tomorrow. Bourassa agrees to keep an eye on everything while he’s gone.

***

About three hours after the clean-up began, Modeste’s phone is still ringing with volunteers who say they’re on their way. But she and Harris need to wrap it up. They have other work to do.

They leave Beacon Hill Park and head to Red Cedar Cafe for the afternoon-dinner shift, where they help the kitchen staff package up butter paneer and rice. Then they deliver the meals to people still living in parks and on Pandora Street.

At home, around 6pm, they relax for a bit in front of the TV. Then Modeste heads back out to Pandora Street to hand out clean pipes. It’s an uneventful shift, a “quiet, mellow” night, and she finally returns home for good around 1:30am.

The following day, she sees a CHEK News story online about the other clean-up effort, the one by Save Beacon Hill Park. Embedded in the article is a video narrated by the man in the hard hat. He explains that he’s out at the park to conduct “reconnaissance” in anticipation of the next day’s clean-up, which he refers to as “Operation Clean Sweep 1.0.” He also mentions “the disaster of allowing people to live in the park willy-nilly.” 

Modeste doesn’t catch that part of the video. “I clicked him off when he was talking about people shooting up under the trees,” she later said, adding that she’s never seen anyone shoot up in the park and that if it has happened, it certainly doesn’t happen regularly. 

Modeste says she’s tired of uniformed sentiments that equate homelessness with criminality or depravity. She calls that “negative propaganda,” and says it has real-world consequences. Campers have had to deal with regular harassment. They have been screamed at, followed, and threatened—simply for being unhoused. “It’s been absolutely terrifying,” she says. She mentions that someone came into the park a while back and hacked at tents with a machete.

She’s also aware of incidents in which people who didn’t live there were accosted while visiting the park, including one in early May in which a man walking with his wife and baby was threatened by someone with a knife. “I think this happened as people started to leave the park and the structure and the community fell away,” she says. For most of the year, “we had an order to the place. People took care of each other.”

But that wasn't always obvious to people who didn't live there. Many in Victoria came to think of the park as an unsafe and unstable environment, both for campers and visitors. Occasional stories of confrontations between those groups only stoked this perception.

Modeste is relieved that the city no longer has to contend with the volatile question of what to do with people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. Though the issue was ultimately resolved with compassion, it revealed an ugliness that permeates people’s attitudes about those in need. But Modeste’s takeaway is generous—it’s a city with “growing pains,” one that has become “a moody adolescent.” She says, “It’s still a hell of a city.”

So many people rallied to provide for people in need, allowing the campers to hang onto their dignity and pride. For that, she’s grateful. That’s the message she wanted to convey on the Thank You sign she wrote up with White on the morning of the clean-up, which now sits in the passenger-side window of her van. 

It reads: “Thank You for your patience with us in paradise. Sincerely, The Campers of Meegan.”

Correction at 11:00 am on May 26: The man in the hard hat interviewed by CHEK news said he was doing "reconnaissance," not surveillance.

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After the campers