John Bertrim shows off his new tent at the My Place Transitional Home on Yates Street Tuesday. Bertrim and his wife Laurel Hanuse were the first couple to move from the tent city behind the Victoria courthouse to the new facility.

Tent city campers get settled in new temporary shelter

The essence of what used to be the Boys and Girls Club is still evident at the building on Yates Street.

The essence of what used to be the Boys and Girls Club is still evident at the building on Yates Street.

From the outside, the three-storey building looks like a school, with its grey exterior and blue trim.  Inside, it’s reminiscent of a building where dozens of children once played.

The walls are painted a welcoming bright yellow and cool blue. The doors all have small wooden plaques labelled “washroom” or “custodial.”

The gym is similar to that of any elementary school, with coloured lines decorating the floors.

This is where John Bertrim and Laurel Hanuse will call home for the next four months.

The couple were among the handful of campers to move into the My Place Transitional Home earlier this week, after living at the tent city outside the Victoria courthouse on Burdett Avenue.

“I think I’m going to sleep dry tonight,” Bertrim said, adding they received a brand new tent, mat and sleeping bags.

Prior to moving into the temporary shelter at 1240 Yates St., the couple was living in a rooming house in Victoria and were evicted to make way for incoming condo developments.

Due to high rent costs, Bertrim, who is a demolition worker, couldn’t afford a place to stay. For the past year, they have been sleeping outside Alpine Market on Blanshard Street.

Two-and-a-half months ago, they came across the tent city erected outside the courthouse, where roughly 120 campers currently live, and decided to set up camp.

The land is owned by the provincial government therefore city bylaws that only allowed camping in parks from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. do not apply.

“We were fine there, we didn’t have any problems, but we had to listen to all of the problems around us,” said Hanuse, adding they would often hear arguments late at night. Bertrim was even punched in the head once while sleeping.

But they decided to stay because it was the only place they weren’t forced to pack up their belongings every morning.

When they heard about the new shelter, they jumped at the chance to move into a new home.

“It’s a step up for us,” Hanuse said.

Bertrim said he can rest easy knowing when he goes to work, his wife will be in a safe environment and is hopeful they will be able to get back on their feet again.

“It’s a good feeling,” he said.

The shelter, which will remain open until April 30, has the capacity to house 40 homeless campers from tent city, where they have access to showers, a place to store their personal belongings and daily meals. The facility also has a TV room and staff are working to set up art, music and computer rooms. It is staffed around the clock with both security and support staff.

Don Evans, executive director of Our Place Society that runs the shelter, said he expects it will be full in the coming weeks.

“I’m ecstatic. It’s been a tough few weeks getting it ready. To see people finally coming in here, we’ve got enough people to fill it. So to go from nobody to 40 and we’ll probably have a wait list, it’s pretty exciting and rewarding,” Evans said, adding they’ll gradually phase people into the shelter. “There’s no doubt in my mind that it will fill up.”

Our Place is also working with Pacifica Housing and Island Health to provide mental health and addiction support.

But the project hasn’t been without controversy.

Parents of students attending Central Middle School, located directly across the street from the shelter, expressed concern about drug dealers coming into the area and needles being left in the playground.

Despite 40 less people living on the streets, there are still roughly 80 people camped at tent city.

Evans noted many of those people chose to stay because they preferred living outdoors, but was quick to add they’ve been in contact with the City of Victoria about establishing a place outside where they can stay.