A view of a fire extinguisher and the paths surrounding tents and other structures in the tent city homeless encampment on the lawns of the courthouse.

Tent city’s days may be numbered

Tent city continues to be sustainable, according to a lawyer representing those who’ve been living on the lawns of the Victoria court house.

Aside from failing to meet the regulations set by fire officials, tent city continues to be sustainable, according to the lawyer representing those who’ve been living on the lawns of the Victoria court house since the fall.

Lawyers for tent city and the province were back in B.C. Supreme Court this week, arguing why the homeless camp should or shouldn’t continue to exist.

The hearing was the province’s second attempt at an interim injunction to evict more than 100 people living at the site, based on deteriorating conditions and safety concerns. Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson, however, decided to reserve his decision until a later date, but stayed a fire order to close the camp, leaving the province and fire commissioner to decide whether it will be enforced at the end of the week.

In late May, the Office of the Fire Commissioner conducted a safety inspection of tent city and deemed it unsafe, stating it was “only a matter of time before a serious fire incident occurs.” The concerns pertain to space between tents, the use of tarps covering multiple tents, items blocking exit paths and excessive storage of combustibles throughout the camp.

During this week’s court proceedings, the province’s lawyer Warren Milman said things have gotten worse at the camp and some residents consider the fire order as impossible to comply with unless there are fewer people on the site.

Catherine Boies Parker, the lawyer representing the campers along with the Together Against Poverty Society, argued much progress has been to address fire concerns, but Hinkson noted the issue still hasn’t been properly addressed.

“They had a chance to comply with what the fire commissioner said was necessary and it hasn’t been done,” said Hinkson, adding it’s not just the spacing of the tents that’s a concern, but the fact residents are turning them away from pathways to protect their belongings, thus ignoring fire orders.

“This is public property, not their own property.”

Boies Parker said she would accept a targeted order to address fire safety concerns, but she doesn’t support dismantling the camp at this time. If an order were to be issued, she added the removal of tent city can’t be based on any deterioration at the site, but on the fact the province has made a commitment to provide more housing. If facilities aren’t adequate, however, those who continue to be homeless must be able to create their own shelter as they did at tent city.

Last March, the province applied for a court injunction to shut the camp down, but Hinkson denied the request on the grounds there was no place else for them to go.

Since then, the province has purchased a number of buildings that are being converted into supportive housing — including the former Baptist Central Care Home, which will house 140 people, and the former Super 8 Hotel on Douglas Street, which will house an additional 51 people.

Milman told the court the government is prepared to accept a phased dismantling of the camp once the fire dangers are removed, and also wants to compile a list of campers in order to track where they will be housed. The government plans to have housing ready for every camper by Aug. 8. If the province can provide shelter for everyone, Boies Parker said there may not be a need for tent city.

“The reason people have a right to be there is either because there is no place to go or no place suitable for them to go,” she said. “We all hope that there is some place for everyone to go.”

Boies Parker addressed a number of issues brought up by Milman, such as increased crime, gang activity, neighbour’s concerns and rats at the site.

According to Boies Parker, there is no evidence to suggest gangs have exerted territorial control over the camp, but there are some people there who’ve been known to associate with gangs — something that isn’t uncommon among the homeless population.

The camp has also provided a sense of community, stability and support for people before they move into a shelter, she added. The statement was echoed by a handful of supporters in the courtroom.

“I have hopes for this new (provincial housing) model. Closing it (tent city) down at this time is not healthy for the total city,” said Al Tysick, who’s been working with people living on the streets for the last 35 years and is the founder of the Dandelion Society. “I am just looking at the bigger picture.”

More than 190 spaces for Victoria’s homeless have already been provided since October, but B.C. Housing Minister Rich Coleman said more keep coming to tent city “because they can.” He also added there are two activist groups that frequent the site and aren’t homeless, but are there for more of a protest, encouraging people to stay.