During the last three years, Mary has become scared to go into the back yard of her Fernwood home.
When she first moved to the property in 1991, there were people playing horse shoes in the small park behind her home. Now the police are there every day, waking up the homeless campers to pack up their belongings in accordance with the city’s bylaws that state people can only shelter in a park between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. That time changes to 7 p.m. in the winter.
After the wake up calls, Mary, who did not want to publish her last name, said the campers often come back and so do the police. But lately that’s become the least of her concerns.
Ever since the homeless started camping in Kings Park three or four years ago, she said it’s turned into a party zoo. Last summer, neighbours had a spill over of people sleeping, injecting and defecating on private property or rummaging through garbage bins and blue boxes, searching for cash-convertible items.
Some evenings are filled with drug deals, yelling, screaming, threats of bodily harm, exacerbated by drinking or someone having a mental melt down. Ambulances arrive because of drug overdoses. One camper set themselves on fire trying to light a Coleman stove.
Mary hears and sees it all.
“I can hear them making drug deals, the girls that are prostitutes working with customers…Most conversations start with the F word and escalate up. Even in the summer I don’t keep my windows open because I can hear all this with the windows closed,” said Mary, adding last Saturday was particularly bad.
A loud argument between two women started at 1 a.m. and went on until 4 a.m. It didn’t take long before other campers got involved in the yelling.
“I don’t terribly appreciate it. I think it’s probably aged me in the last couple years… It’s a little better this time of year because it’s cooler, but any time from April to the end of September, it’s just a continuous soap opera over there.”
The problems in Kings Park are nothing new. Area residents have complained about the campers in the past, but say the problem is getting worse every year.
During the summer months, between 12 to 14 tents are regularly set up in the tiny park, located on Caledonia Avenue between Cook and Chambers Streets. A few residents, however, have reached out to the campers and helped organize a barbecue last September as an opportunity to get to know each other.
In order to address the growing homeless problem in Victoria, the city was eyeing part of Topaz Park as a site for a designated tenting area last summer, but those plans were deflated after hundreds of neighbours objected to the idea.
The city is also now pondering later wakeup calls that would allow park campers to stay until 9 a.m. A recent B.C. Supreme Court ruling found that Abbotsford’s bylaws prohibiting camping in parks were unconstitutional and that homeless people can erect shelters in public spaces and parks from 7 p.m. to 9 a.m. The judge also noted that the continual displacement of the city’s homeless causes them impaired sleep, serious psychological pain and stress, and creates a risk to their health.
“Ultimately, I don’t want anyone to sleep in the park,” said Victoria Coun. Jeremy Loveday. “I think parks should be available for everyone to use at all times of the day, but I also think everyone has a right to housing and shelter.”
When it comes to camping in small parks such as Kings, Loveday said council began having that discussion, but it was put off until they received more information from staff about sheltering options. A proposal to the hospital board is coming at the beginning of December to build 367 units to house people with mental health problems and addictions.
As for designated camping areas, Loveday said they have worked in other jurisdictions, but council needs to look at which parks are the most appropriate. In the mean time, operating hours have been extended at Beacon Hill, Stadacona and Centennial Square.
“In a way that’s encouraging camping in specific parks already,” said Loveday. “We do have to have that discussion though on are these smaller neighbourhood parks the right places for this camping? Everyone deserves to feel safe in their own back yard and everyone deserves to have adequate shelter and to not have bylaws that are unreasonably causing them harm.”
David Hillman is the captain of a street block watch in Fernwood and lives less than a block away from Kings Park, which has become a popular conversation topic amongst area residents who’d like to see it developed into a green space they can actually use.
Hillman realizes police are doing what they can to address neighbour’s concerns, but are somewhat limited with what they can do. If the city doesn’t do something by next summer, Hillman fears the problem will only get worse.
“As soon as the police and bylaw officers are gone the drug dealers are there making sure everyone’s got their supplies for the day…It’s just very uncomfortable. It wasn’t like this 30 years ago,” he said.
“I have a problem with the people who have serious mental issues who are yelling and screaming all night. If people just slept there, packed up and left, there wouldn’t be an issue.”