Tensions mount in Victoria's parks as the end of 24/7 sheltering arrives
Temporary shelters are being rejected by some campers despite investments to move everyone indoors
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Temporary shelters are being rejected by some campers despite investments to move everyone indoors
Victoria’s city parks have been many things to many people throughout the pandemic: an outlet for recreation, a political flashpoint, a visible reminder of the housing crisis, and a call to action for community support. At the center of this, they have been places of round-the-clock shelter for those experiencing homelessness during dual public health emergencies.
Not any more. The temporary measure that allowed unhoused people to shelter in place in Victoria’s parks officially ended as of May 1. Now, the City of Victoria has signed a memorandum of understanding with the province of BC to formally end 24/7 sheltering, and drafted a strategy for bylaw officers to ensure campers comply.
Those campers identified by BC Housing and waiting for a housing offer from the province are temporarily exempt from the order for them to vacate; they will be allowed to remain camped around the clock until they are offered an indoor space. At the time of press, BC Housing showed that 124 of the 220 people signed up to be placed in housing have moved indoors.
But not all campers plan on going quietly.
The provincial government has poured tens of millions of dollars into purchasing shelter spaces and buildings to be converted to supportive housing units in the Capital Regional District, in a massive effort to bring everyone who is sheltering outdoors, inside.
More than 300 temporary shelter spaces are available, with plans for at least 280 units of supportive housing to come online in Greater Victoria within the next 18 months. The province's most recent purchase of the Capital City Center Hotel adds 96 units of temporary supportive housing to this total, to be converted into affordable housing rentals in the long term.
The plan had been to house everyone by the end of March, but in early March, that deadline was pushed to the end of April. Now, BC Housing says they expect to house every one of the 220 people they’ve identified as needing shelter by mid-May. Attorney General and Minister for Housing David Eby told Capital Daily he expects that schedule will stay on track.
“Everyone in the parks in Victoria should have offers and if they don't, they should be imminent. We have sufficient space at Russell Street and also with the [Royal Athletic Park] tiny homes development to be able to get folks inside to dignified and appropriate housing,” said Eby.
The province is leaning heavily on temporary shelter spaces as a key piece of the puzzle to meet the mid-May deadline. Space at the shelter 225 Russell Street in Victoria West is expected to come online May 3, and the tiny homes village in Royal Athletic Park will open on May 12.
The list of people experiencing homelessness in Victoria is not limited to the 220 people identified by the province during the pandemic; it’s a fluid number that changes constantly, as more people fall through the cracks of a notoriously expensive housing market, find housing, or move to Victoria.
“People shouldn't be under the impression that because we've done this, that they're not going to see someone who's living outside. But what I'm hopeful they will see is a very significant reduction in the number of people who are outside, and certainly camping in parks, and also steady progress towards more and more folks being inside and fewer and fewer people being outside over the next 18 months,” said Eby.
Those people who are not on BC Housing’s list, or who have refused offers of shelter, may still camp in parks overnight—a 2009 BC Supreme Court decision guaranteed them that right—but they will be once again required to pack up their belongings by 7 every morning.
Not all campers plan on accepting the end of 24/7 sheltering without a struggle. Some are planning to stage a camp-in protest and continue sheltering in place in the park.
Shea Smith is a former camper in Beacon Hill Park. He’s accepted an offer of indoor space at a motel, but spends much of his time in the park and is still active in advocacy for the unhoused community. He says the central issue in the indoor shelters provided by the City and the province is a lack of ability to isolate.
“Imagine what it would feel like to be in these kinds of spaces,” Smith said. “During a pandemic, this is exactly what we want to avoid. They're telling us all sorts of ways to avoid this type of you know, don't assemble. So we're thinking to ourselves if we have to be assembled, if we have to be slammed into one place, we're going to make a stand.”
Smith wants to see 24/7 camping continue until supportive housing units are ready. The provincial government announced in March that it has bought four new properties, totalling 192 units, for supportive housing.
“I'm not advocating for living in tents. That's, that's not what I'm doing. I'm just saying that there's more security and more safety and more ability to isolate and mobility to be an individual and not feel like a herd in a tent. I mean, people at least have the ability to be private, and also to choose the people that they want to live around,” Smith said.
Anthony Bryan is a 29-year-old camper in Beacon Hill Park. They were a founder of the Cook Street Community Care Tent, and have been an active voice for campers. Bryan is not involved in the brewing protest, but is aware of it, and agrees the shelters are inadequate.
“I’m gonna scream to high heavens, the arena is not a place for homeless people to be because it is an unsafe space and it is very unsecure [sic]. So if you ever get offered the Save-On Foods Arena, tell them straight up, ‘I do not want this; this is not a safe space,’” said Bryan.
Bryan is on BC Housing’s list, but as of publication time, they had not yet been offered an indoor space. They do not plan on accepting a spot at a temporary shelter.
“If it comes with a lock [and] key and privacy, sure! Anything less is a no for me,” said Bryan.
The shelter created in the Save-On-Foods Memorial Arena is currently run by the Portland Hotel Society. While the cubicle-style spaces do not have doors, residents have lockers for belongings. The shelter also offers clinical support, including an overdose prevention site. Capital Daily reached out to BC Housing with specific allegations of resident-on-resident violence at the arena reported by campers, and was told they did not happen.
Eby acknowledges that shelters are not an adequate solution to homelessness in and of themselves. He emphasized that shelters are a path towards supportive housing, which the province has committed to building.
“You know, I really understand why someone might choose to camp in a park, rather than move into a shelter.,” Eby said. “What I would say to those folks is, yes, it's inconvenient, and it's not the same as having your own place. But it is how folks are moving into permanent housing ... this is a vehicle by which people are going to be permanently housed,” .
As for the risk of COVID transmission, Eby said policies around pandemic safety are in place at shelters, including a no-guest policy, which has also been protested by campers.
Janine Theobald is the Inclusion and Collaboration Manager with the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness. She’s been a familiar face around Beacon Hill Park, attending community sharing circles, and forming relationships with those living in the park. She knows there are challenges that come with living in shelters, but says she’s confident that the arena’s operator, the Portland Hotel Society, is doing their best to mitigate those challenges.
“I can understand people's apprehension. But I'm also really pleased to know that there are really amazing wraparound supports that are available for people, whether it's harm reduction, or getting finances in order, getting ID in order. So there's a lot of experiences across that spectrum as well,” said Theobald.
She’s also seen shelters function the way the province intends them to: as pathways to supportive housing and greater independence.
“I think that there were some great lessons learned from the original iteration of the Save-On-Foods Memorial Arena operations, where people who were in that location, once that temporary lease was resolved, they did move into were either some of the temporary motel sites or other permanent housing spaces across the community,” Theobald said.
“So I've seen that come to fruition, and I'm expecting and planning to see that again.”
In anticipation of the pushback that appears to be coming the City of Victoria plans to seek a court injunction against campers if necessary. A city-authored bylaw compliance strategy report acknowledges that injunctions take time and resources, but adds that by acting quickly and even against individuals if necessary, they may be able to quell a larger movement.
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps hopes that campers who are not on the housing list, or have recently arrived in Victoria will pack up voluntarily. Bylaw officers plan to work with each camper on an individual basis.
The city is expecting this will be difficult work, given the volume of campers, a level of entrenchment in the encampment lifestyle, the potential for protests, and a lack of available outreach and mental health support.
“Tensions will be high for sure. Every time there's a decampment process, tensions are high,” Helps said.
“Bylaw officers, and park staff in particular, are on the front lines. ... It's very difficult work. They're compassionate people. And they don't want to be, you know, seen to be removing people's homes. But at the same time, we're creating options with the province for people to move inside. And we hope that they'll take those options as a pathway to permanent housing.”
Shea Smith is aware that the City is readying itself to obtain injunctions. He hopes an injunction will encourage a more open dialogue between campers and the city.
“Hopefully … when the city goes for injunctions, they will finally get [that] there needs to be dialogue between the people and the problem,” said Smith.
Helps acknowledges the right of people to protest, but points to what she says is unprecedented effort on the part of the province to provide options for those living outside during a pandemic.
“Protesting is always welcome in a democracy. And at the same time, in you know, in previous instances, encampments have been cleared, with people having nowhere to go. And in this instance, not only do people have places to go for the most part, but they're not just temporary places, they're places where people can move in, settle in, stabilize, and then the permanent housing is being built,” said Helps.
Camper Anthony Bryan has lived the life of packing up their belongings each morning and moving to a different spot, and describe it as a “horrid, horrid experience.” They’re hoping to be offered something that allows for privacy.
Bryan isn’t optimistic that the protests will amount to anything. They predict that most people who aren’t interested in accepting housing offers will move on.
“I think there's gonna be a massive like immigration to towards other cities where like, it's not so strict or like, the camping in parks isn't so bad, where, you know, you can actually go hide in the bush and stuff like that. I know a lot of people that are talking about ditching out to Fairy Creek and things like that, doing different actions,” said Bryan.
For Janine Theobald, the ray of hope comes in the form of people for whom the provincial housing plan has worked for. After years of watching people struggle with the physical and mental toll of homelessness, she’s buoyed to see that script start to flip for those who have gained stable housing.
“What's been amazing to me, inversely is seeing people who have been staying in places that are there. They're looking more healthy, they're showing up at the circles, and some of the community that they might be missing spending time with, but they're looking healthy and well. And that, to me, is so important,” said Theobald.
Regardless, for those still camping in the park, and those whose job it is to ensure they find their way out, a long road remains.
“I think the next few weeks are going to be very difficult for everyone,” said Helps.