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Campaigners urge Victoria for homelessness action, criticize item seizures

Sanctioned, smaller encampments among advocates’ requested to council
Demonstrators calling for action on homelessness in Victoria hold a banner during the April 11 council meeting. (Courtesy of Martin Girard/Rulebreakers)

Homelessness advocates and those living in tents themselves are urging Victoria to support interim shelter solutions for those outdoors and for the city to stop taking essential items from people.

Several pleas made to council on Thursday (April 11) took aim at the actions of bylaw officers who are confiscating tents, sleeping bags and other items from the homeless. Niki Ottosen asked council for confirmation the city won’t impound survival gear during or around extreme weather events.

The operator of the Backpack Project also said there’s a lack of transparency and information on the city’s website about how people can retrieve items taken from them. Ottosen contrasted that with a drop-down menu on the city’s website that takes the public right to an online form for making complaints about tents on sidewalks or in parks.

Bylaw officers share information on how people can retrieve their items at the time property is taken and during regular visits to public spaces, city spokesperson Colleen Mycroft told Black Press Media. Bylaw services has information about reclaiming items on its website, and also shares that over phone or email, Mycroft added.

The city updated its bylaws in late 2023 and promised those experiencing homelessness won’t have to pay to reclaim life-sustaining property like tents, sleeping bags, waterproof clothing and more. That update also halved the time people have to reclaim their belongings before they’re trashed.

Ottosen noted that people aren’t choosing to live on public spaces like sidewalks, but they’re being forced there through displacement.

“This is unacceptable and it’s unsustainable,” she said of council recently restricting sheltering to fewer parks. “You are pushing people away from services, away from community, onto sidewalks and streets.”

People having their belongings taken leads to them ending up on the sidewalks of Pandora or Queens avenues, the advocate said, adding those without the safety of homes are being facing harassment and trauma daily.

“People without homes are human beings who deserve the same rights and dignity that are afforded to housed people,” Ottosen said.

She called on the city to follow the recommendations from the federal housing advocate’s review of homeless encampments, which found residents of those sites are at a dire risk of harm due to the failure to uphold their basic rights.

The federal advocate gave the Canadian government until September to present a plan that includes: ensuring those living in encampments have access to basic necessities they need to survive; ending forced encampment evictions; recognizing the right to live in encampments in the absence of affordable and accessible housing; and more.

A day after the pleas to council, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled his government’s plan to quell the housing crisis. It includes $250 million from this year’s budget to end encampments by transitioning residents into dignified housing and by providing them rent supplements.

The almost 300 units BC Housing has brought online since 2021 are woefully inadequate compared to the level of local homelessness, Susan Martin told councillors. Greater Victoria’s most recent point-in-time count identified 1,665 people who were without a home in 2023.

Martin pushed council to support an interim solution that would create several sanctioned encampments, each with no more than 20 residents living in tents located on paved surfaces with access to basics like water, electricity and washrooms.

She said it’s not a novel idea as it would reflect the encampment that arose at a Caledonia Avenue parking lot a few years ago. The shipping-container village, Tiny Town, eventually opened at that site, and was recently revived through a funding deal between the city and the provincial government.

Those living in the sanctioned sites should be involved in planning and operation of the spaces, Martin said, mirroring a recommendation from the federal housing advocate that stated encampment residents must play a leading role in decision-making processes that affect them.

READ: Tiny Town reopening aims to help Victoria’s homeless move forward in life

Jake Romphf

About the Author: Jake Romphf

In early 2021, I made the move from the Great Lakes to Greater Victoria with the aim of experiencing more of the country I report on.
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