Standing on the former site of tent city, Jerry Bystedt has a hard time imagining what the property looked like as a thriving homeless camp one year ago.
More than 80 people had not only set up tents and draped tarps across the green space outside the Victoria courthouse, they also built some structures, a central fire pit, and a community for a vulnerable population.
Bystedt never lived at tent city, but spent much time there visiting friends and splitting wood for the fire. He knew the camp wouldn't last forever and is thrilled the property is now being transformed into a playground.
“This is so cool. I'm glad that it's for the younger folks, but I know a bunch of big kids that'll be playing on this stuff too,” said Bystedt, who was part of a team of at least 25 volunteers that began assembling playground equipment at the site on Friday.
“It's regrowth, going forward and making something really beautiful out or something that perhaps wasn't all that beautiful.”
With a lack of playgrounds in the downtown core, talks for turning the site into a play area for children began shortly after campers left the property for good late last summer. But soil testing at the site found lead, gasoline, diesel, methamphetamine and traces of other drugs, forcing the province to truck away about one tonne to a facility in the Highlands. Costs for the clean up are now an estimated $350,000.
The 5,800 square-foot playground will include swings, slides, climbing nets, a toddler play area and a spinning globe — equipment chosen by children from Christ Church Cathedral and Sir James Douglas Elementary schools. The redesigned property will also feature chess tables, benches and a rubberized safety surface with artistic designs, along with a permanent monument to Canadian Afghanistan veterans financed by the Greater Victoria Afghanistan Memorial Project Society.
For Christ Church Cathedral Dean M. Ansley Tucker, seeing the playground take shape is like seeing spring come out of winter.
She clearly remembers the first few months after the camp sprouted. The church was supportive of the campers right to be there since there wasn't a better solution, with members bringing them outreach, meals and allowing access to amenities.
But problems in the camp soon spilled into the surrounding area, prompting the church to pull its support — a decision Tucker notes wasn't easy, but had to be done for the safety of children attending the nearby school.
“As tent city spiraled out of control, we became more and more concerned for the children. We still remain committed to the homeless and permanent housing, but homes for people who need them,” said Ansley, who was all smiles as she watched the community band together Friday to build the playground.
“I hope this playground will continue to be such a gathering place, not just a space, but a place.”
The province has contributed $50,000 towards the playground, with Tire Stewardship B.C. donating $80,000 and a private donor contributing another $150,000. The playground is expected to be open to the public this spring.
As for tent city residents, so far the province has spent more than $30 million to provide housing and shelter for them. As of January, more than 260 people from the former homeless camp have been housed in the various facilities throughout region and approximately 80 have moved into permanent housing.