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Everybody wants the tents gone, but few have produced plans to actually get people clean and off the street
In the lead-up to Election Day, Capital Daily brings you a series of explainers breaking down key issues that have come up in the 2020 campaign. Today, we explain what the plan is when it comes to Vancouver Island’s ever-present tent encampments.
Throughout the pandemic, approximately 500 people in Victoria have been allocated province-funded hotel rooms. Some of these placements have occurred in one of two former Victoria hotels purchased at well above assessed value by the provincial government: The 65-room Comfort Inn, purchased for $18 million, and the 75-room Paul’s Motor Inn, purchased for $15 million. The rest have been placed at hotels and other facilities under temporary lease.
This month, the BC government announced it will not renew its lease (which expires March 2021) of the Travelodge on Gorge Road, currently housing 85-90 formerly homeless tenants. “It has been a difficult site to operate,” Rob Fleming, the MLA for Victoria-Swan Lake, told the Times Colonist, adding that it was never supposed to be a permanent site. If BC similarly plans to shut down its operation at the 100-room Howard Johnson hotel, this means that upwards of 200 people will be returning to the streets in the coming months.
Although officials, including Fleming, have raised the prospect of permanent measures, none have been publicized at this point. Meanwhile, the overdose crisis is once again climbing to historic highs and, whatever their flaws, shelters are good at preventing people from succumbing to fatal overdoses. In July, only days after Victoria’s Native Friendship Centre closed its seasonal shelter, two former residents were dead; one from an overdose and the other from an act of violence.
In Victoria Beacon Hill, the provincial riding which is home to virtually all of Greater Victoria’s major tent encampments, all three major party candidates have condemned the continued existence of tent cities. BC Liberal candidate Karen Bill has explicitly said she does not support 24/7 camping in parks, framing it as the keystone of her campaign. Earlier this month, BC NDP candidate Grace Lore told CHEK that encampments were “unacceptable” while Green Party candidate Jenn Neilson said “I don’t think anyone should ever have to sleep in parks.”
While all three major parties are advocating an expansion of mental health services, the BC Liberals have been vocal about pairing this with greater law enforcement to reduce public disorder. “What the NDP have done is paid far more than the market price for old motels, moved people into them and then basically abandoned them,” BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson said in September after a visit to businesses adjacent to Paul’s Motor Inn.
As for the future of tent cities, Melanie Mark, a BC NDP MLA in Vancouver-Mount Pleasant, recently raised the idea of permanent tent cities, although this has been disavowed by higher-ups within the party. However, the concept has gotten support from BC Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau. Using an encampment in her home riding of Cowichan Valley as an example, Furstenau told The Tyee it was a success and a good alternative to purchasing hotels, provided the sites had security, health care and mental health support. However, she said tent cities should be “a step towards housing” instead of a permanent solution.
In a CBC story published in the opening days of the election, it was noted that while all three parties promised to address homelessness, detailed plans were nonexistent — a situation that hasn’t changed all that much with the release of each party’s election platform.
For those in the tent cities, meanwhile, the last few months have involved constantly being shifted from one encampment to another. “We are not getting anywhere it seems. It seems the NIMBY [Not In My Backyard] voice is the only one heard although people are starting to see our perspective” Shea Smith, a Beacon Hill Park tenter, told Capital Daily while surveying his camp after a recent windstorm. “We are on our own here fending for ourselves.”
By most metrics, shelters and tent cities have become magnets for crime — most notably for the people within them. Last week, Beacon Hill Park tenter Terrance Aver told Capital Daily about having to maintain a “decoy” tent to deflect random violence.
Tent encampments at Topaz Park, Centennial Square and Beacon Hill Park have all been scenes of assaults or stabbings. In August, a series of violent incidents at Centennial Square prompted police to bust a major drug ring operating out of tents within the plaza.
Meanwhile, neighbourhoods surrounding tent cities almost uniformly report immediate upticks in petty crime. A community survey released this week by the Victoria Police found that residents feel that daytime crime has increased in the downtown.
For these reasons, public pressure may be building to reverse some of the City of the Victoria measures that have made tent encampments possible. While a 2009 BC Supreme Court decision requires Victoria to open its parks to campers at night, a city bylaw nonetheless mandated that campers dismantle their tents during the day. Victoria has explicitly refused to enforce this bylaw during the pandemic and in May Victoria City Council also voted to allow unoccupied tents to remain on municipal land for upwards of three days before they could be taken down by bylaw staff.
BC NDP leader John Horgan, while encouraging a compassionate response to homelessness, has criticized the Victoria approach to tent encampments. In July, he publicly criticized Victoria's decision to allow 24/7 camping.
As previously covered by Capital Daily, there is an acute shortage of long-term mental health care throughout BC. Similar deficiencies exist in detoxification and addictions treatment (although we recently profiled the case of Nancy Sandman, who received a placement at the Eric Martin Pavilion).
Victoria’s temporary hotel shelters have almost exclusively been devoted to harm reduction: Residents are given food, shelter and clean materials with which to do drugs, but little else. Screening is minimal, as are transitional programs.
As a result, they have been relatively chaotic environments and easy epicentres of the drug trade. In June, a Capital Daily reporter was offered drugs in the parking lot of the Howard Johnson. The shelters have roundly experienced frequent fires as well as drug and weapons busts. Earlier this month, a police raid on a room at the former Comfort Inn seized fentanyl, cocaine and a small arsenal of decoy firearms, machetes, batons and other weapons.
On a recent Capital Daily visit to Paul’s Motor Inn, music could be heard blaring as residents staged an impromptu dance party in the parking lot. “For $375 a month, I’d live here” joked a social worker who did not want their name used.
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