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Homeless population small but selective
Homeless people on the West Shore choose to live in seclusion rather than the hustle and bustle of downtown Victoria.
“There are homeless people on the West Shore and not a lot of them use services. They just want to get away from the (bull) of downtown and are sick of getting their (stuff) ripped off,” said Roman Witkowsky, a lead outreach worker at Our Place.
Witkowsky, of Langford, has worked at Our Place Society for more than a decade.
“I used to know a bunch of people living out (on the West Shore) so they could keep a low profile,” Witkowsky said. “I knew some people who would go fishing in Langford Lake and then cook the fish back at their camps.”
While working downtown Victoria, Witkowsky often talks to clients who discuss relocating to the West Shore because they would feel safer and there would be less theft. Distance and lack of resources keeps the majority of Greater Victoria’s homeless population in Victoria.
There are a few West Shore residents who Witkowsky sees “binning and bottling” who also make their way downtown to Victoria to Our Place.
“They come down here mostly for showers,” he said.
Sandy Bell, a lead outreach worker with Our Place, also lives on the West Shore.
“Homelessness isn’t very evident on the West Shore,” Bell said. “They want to live off-the- grid and a good place to do that is in the bush. They are loners, they hate the downtown scene.”
While the West Shore homeless population is small often they reside in rural areas.
“They are really smart and can find places to live where people don’t bother them,” said Witkowsky . “It’s almost like a haven for now, but let’s face it, Langford is growing like a weed.”
At the Goldstream Food Bank about a half-dozen homeless people collect hampers and Gayle Ireland, food bank president, tries to provide canned soups and chilli with “pop-top lids” to make it easier for them to eat without a kitchen available.
West Shore RCMP work with homeless people living both rurally and in urban areas in the jurisdiction and estimate there are around 10 living on the West Shore.
“Downtown (Victoria) is a much smaller jurisdiction than we have here, but we have police on the road 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If people are moving here to avoid police detection we will eventually find them,” said Cpl. Kathy Rochlitz. “There are more places to tuck away and to make yourself comfortable.”
On occasion, RCMP approach people living outdoors and offer a ride to a homeless shelter in Victoria, but Rochlitz said the offers are often turned down.
“Living out here is people’s choice, there is less competition for places to sleep and it’s just a different scene,” she said, adding people have told RCMP they’ve moved out here to avoid theft of possession from other homeless people.
RCMP say the homeless population is slightly larger in the summer when the weather is better.
“We also get requests from private land owners about how to approach people living on their land,” said Rochlitz. “We look at each situation case by case.”
Private property a problem
At the moment a handful of homeless camps are set up on private land in both Langford and View Royal.
In View Royal, homeless campers keeping warm by a fire aren’t adhering to the district’s burning ban.
“Our residents are not allowed to have any burning,” said Coun. John Rogers.
View Royal residents have reported to the town open fire pits and two homeless camps off Chilco Road in View Royal.
“When you look at the map you see it’s in a heavily forested area. If the wind blows it could burn down Mill Hill,” Rogers said. “It’s also a significant risk to the neighbours on Chilco (Road).”
While the area appears to be public property, it’s private land.
“There are no fences or signs there,” said Rogers. “There are two encampments that have been there for at least a year.”
The camps are small with only one or two occupants in each and because it’s private property, the town cannot intervene.
“Staff have been advised they have no jurisdiction and have informed the property owners,” Rogers said.
Rogers is also concerned with the well-being of those living in the bush and other issues including disposal of garbage and human waste.
Langford has similar issues with camps on private land near where the Galloping Goose and Cy Jenkins trails intersect.
Due to an “accumulation of debris and rubbish” a property there is now in violation of the city’s unsightly premise bylaw, said Lorne Fletcher, Langford manager of community safety and municipal enforcement.
“Langford has very little in regard to homelessness,” said Fletcher, adding bylaw officers are familiar with the homeless population and regular “camping” spots.
He said, locations on private land are selected when the landowner does not live on the property and is not there on a daily or even monthly basis.
Property owners are encouraged to have people check in on vacant lots.
There are only a few West Shore homeless, but many working poor.
With about 10 known homeless people on the West Shore the Open Door Society feeds about 75 West Shore residents who commute downtown Victoria for free meals.
“There are a lot of people coming here who make $8 to $10 an hour. A good percentage of our people are the working poor,” said Roman Witkowsky, a lead outreach worker at Our Place.