Homelessness

Inside the City of Victoria’s case against the Beacon Hill tenters

It took a city audit, drone surveys and hundreds of pages of legal documents to move 60 campers from one part of Beacon Hill Park to another part

By Anna J. James
July 30, 2020
Homelessness

Inside the City of Victoria’s case against the Beacon Hill tenters

It took a city audit, drone surveys and hundreds of pages of legal documents to move 60 campers from one part of Beacon Hill Park to another part

By Anna J. James
Jul 30, 2020
Photo of a Beacon Hill Park tent encampment taken by a City of Victoria bylaw officer and included in the city's injunction petition (City of Victoria)
Homelessness

Inside the City of Victoria’s case against the Beacon Hill tenters

It took a city audit, drone surveys and hundreds of pages of legal documents to move 60 campers from one part of Beacon Hill Park to another part

By Anna J. James
July 30, 2020
Inside the City of Victoria’s case against the Beacon Hill tenters
Photo of a Beacon Hill Park tent encampment taken by a City of Victoria bylaw officer and included in the city's injunction petition (City of Victoria)

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court of BC granted a City of Victoria injunction looking to move approximately 100 tenters out of “environmentally sensitive” areas of Beacon Hill Park and into areas the city has greenlit for camping. City lawyer Jeff Locke told a BC judge in a Monday hearing that "20 hectares [of Beacon Hill] are available for shelter" and that the municipality was seeking the injunction after efforts to "ask" and "convince" campers to move on their own accord were fruitless.

The petition specifically names three tenters meant to represent 60 people in 54 tents in a particular cluster of Beacon Hill Park. The lead respondent to the petition, Shae Smith, runs the Humans of Beacon Hill Park Twitter page, a podcast called The Homeless Idea and is frequently quoted in the media. Speaking to Chek over the weekend, Smith said most tenters would leave if they could. “We all want housing. No one’s been offered housing.”

The process began on June 25 with a delegation of city workers performing a detailed audit of the tent encampments. Some tenters voluntarily complied with city requests to move, and on July 10, those remaining were hand delivered a legal notice informing them that the city would be going to court to force them to “remove their personal property and refuse,” and pointing them towards pro bono legal services should they choose to dispute the petition. According to city lawyers, the three named respondents either failed to dismantle their tent sites, or simply moved to another protected area of the park. 

“The relief sought on this application will not operate to prevent the use of Beacon Hill Park for sheltering, but rather merely seeks to ensure that sheltering occurs outside of the environmentally and culturally sensitive areas of the Park,” it read. The sensitive areas in question include Lekwungen burial sites and some of the province’s only remaining pre-colonial Garry Oak meadows. 

Only one Beacon Hill tenter, Sandy Fisher, was present at a Monday hearing for the injunction. He asked for the petition to be dismissed on the grounds that it was an act of “colonial law” that did not hold jurisdiction over the region. He also argued that he failed to see how his tent was causing irreparable harm to camas grasses “that had been growing for thousands of years.” 

“The property we’re on right now is environmentally sensitive, but nobody is asking you to move your building,” Fisher told the judge. 

The City of Victoria’s parks bylaw allows a “homeless person” to set up a tent in city park, provided they pack it up by 7 am each morning. Since the onset of COVID-19, however, city hall has stated its intention not to enforce the daytime ban on tents

Tenters were provided with this map by the City of Victoria. Source: City of Victoria

The petition seeking the injunction included nine affidavits and was backed up with extensive photographs, videos, maps and even drone images captured by city employees. 

In an affidavit a bylaw officer claimed they were verbally abused by a tenter. Another included a video which depicted a bylaw officer approaching Smith's tent and telling them they were camping in a sensitive space. “I guess you’re going to have to arrest us then” came a voice from inside the tent. 

On July 20th, the time of the most recent city survey of the park, a bylaw officer counted 115 tent sites in Beacon Hill, including 51 in environmentally sensitive areas.

Smith’s tent site was singled out as being “very destructive to the environment, even painting a bush with blue spray paint” and “bushes were ripped out and branches cut” around the area. 

On Twitter, Smith has countered that the tenters are being marginalized and their space is, in fact, clean. 

An affidavit by a city bylaw officer said that the City of Victoria has been in a long-running spat with Smith over illegal tent sites since well before the onset of COVID-19. “The presence of Mr. Smith and his refusal to comply with the Parks Bylaw appeared to me to have a detrimental impact on the attitudes of other persons sheltering in these areas, and the level of resistance to compliance efforts appeared to increase,” wrote the officer about pre-pandemic disputes with Smith in both Beacon Hill and Topaz Park.

Another named respondent, Dennis Davies, was said to have a 30 foot by 60 feet camp that contained an extensive collection of bags, electronics, dismantled bikes and parts including inner tubes, handlebars, and pedals. However, a later city visit found that Davies’ footprint had diminished “significantly.” 

Daniel Atkinson, deputy fire chief with the Victoria Fire Department, wrote in an affidavit that the tents were all in a “High Danger” fire category of the park where wildfires “start easily, burn vigorously, and challenge fire suppression efforts.” He also noted noted there has been a “dramatic increase in response for reported illegal outdoor burning without a permit”.  In 2019, VFD responded to six calls for illegal burning in Beacon Hill Park; in 2020, they clocked 23 calls.

At the entrance to one tent, a bylaw officer observed a propane tank with a burner torch attached to it, as well as an abandoned drug pipe on the ground. 

The petition included images of Beacon Hill tents, some taken by drones.

Since April, BC Housing has secured over 400 hotel rooms in Victoria, including the acquisition of Paul’s Motor Inn and The Comfort Inn but Beacon Hill tenters told the media they were not offered accommodation. Instead, the petition suggested alternative lodgings within the park, suggesting a 50 acre patch that “is available for temporary sheltering”. This area is in close proximity to washroom facilities and roadway accessible by third-party such as ambulances. This proposed area also has automatic irrigation that can easily be turned off and most importantly, is where the environment is less vulnerable. 

BC Premier John Horgan told the media he did not approve of the relocation—not only in Victoria—but in general, B.C.’s tendency to move on homeless people rather than provide long-term solutions.

The tenters have inspired a strong public backlash, including a petition signed by nearly 22,000 people. “We have children playing next to tents, needles and human waste during COVID 19!” it reads. “Park users have been followed, harassed and threatened. It is now dangerous to walk through Beacon Hill Park at night.”

But the campers do have supporters, like Nevin Thompson, who lives a block away from Beacon Hill Park, “I have never felt unsafe walking through the park, even where people have set up tents, and I'm not the only James Bay or downtown resident who feels this way. There is a lot of junk lying around the tents, but, unlike those of us with apartments and houses, these people have nowhere to store their belongings,” Thompson told The Capital.

The Capital Daily newsletter is a summary of all the news and events happening in Victoria, in your inbox every morning.
Subscribe Today
[email protected]