Chrissy Brett, a member of the Nuxalk Nation, stands at the outer edges of the homeless camp that has sprung up near Uptown about four weeks ago. She calls on Saanich to dedicate more resources towards housing.

Homeless camp leader calls on Saanich to step up on housing

Roaming tent city sets up near Uptown, brings some transplants from Cuthbert Holmes

A local housing activist questions changes that make it easier for Saanich to remove the personal possessions from Saanich parks and calls on the municipality to invest more in housing.

“We have a [B.C. Supreme Court] decision that says people have the right create to create safe shelter, yet in Canada you really aren’t [allowed] because municipalities have felt that they come along behind that, and say ‘yeah, you can create shelter, but we just don’t want to see you and we are just going to push you around…and trample all over you,’” says Chrissy Brett.

She made these comments as a roaming tent city raising awareness of homelessness has returned to Saanich for the fifth time in nine months. Its most recent location is Saanich’s Regina Park next to the Trans-Canada Highway and within walking distance of Uptown — in short a high-profile location. Previous Saanich locations have included Cadboro Bay. Overall, the group has popped up in 17 locations across the Greater Victoria region.

The camp with its scattered tents houses some 40 people, some of whom have just arrived from Cuthbert Holmes Park, ostensibly the object of recent bylaw changes designed to discourage homeless individuals from camping in Saanich public parks.

“We have about nine, 10 people, who have sort of trickled in from there,” said Brett.

The approved amendments give Saanich the power to seize, remove and dispose of discarded property from local parks. They also authorize Saanich Police to ask overnight campers to leave their campsites. Residents living near Cuthbert Holmes Park have commended the measures in condemning the environmental and social damage to the area that they say the campers have caused.

But Brett suggests that Saanich could have helped to avoid this situation. “One of the things I have said to every municipality is that if you don’t want that [Cuthbert Holmes Park], let’s create municipal and government-funded campsites, where there is a bathroom, where there is running water, where [the shelter portions of welfare cheques] go into showers, security, hydro and everything that you would need to run a camp,” said Brett.

As for the larger issue of housing, Brett acknowledged that housing is a provincial responsibility. But compared to Victoria, Saanich has yet to step up when it comes to increasing the supply of affordable housing, she said.

It is not clear yet when the camp site will move on to its next location.

Brett said the overall purpose of the camp is to remind the provincial government of its responsibility to increase the supply of affordable housing following the disbanding of a tent city that had sprung up in front of the provincial court house in the downtown area of Victoria.

The encampment lasted for nearly a year between November 2015 and August 2016 and housed some 300 people during its peak.

Legal wranglings entangled the encampment, which served as the epicentre of a larger campaign for more low-income housing in the region. While the provincial government eventually purchased three buildings to create more than 250 new housing units, housing advocates like Brett (who participated in the protest outside the courthouse) have argued for additional measures.

Ottawa, Victoria and the Capital Regional District just announced a $90 million partnership to build at least 2,010 rental units over four years, and Brett said this funding means that Saanich is starting to run out of excuses when it comes to doing its part in solving the homeless problem.

To help, the camp plans to hold a series of forums with public officials to raise awareness, said Brett.

She also used the occasion to question the existence of 13 different municipalities. This governance structure with its multiple bureaucracies eats up valuable resources that could be used to fight homelessness, she said.

Overall, Brett thinks the campaign has helped to change the public’s perception of homeless individuals. “Homeless people aren’t that scary at the end of the day,” she said.

Tara Zajac, a spokesperson for the District of Saanich, said Saanich Police have had regular contact with camp members since their arrival. The parks department also installed a portable toilet and garbage container at the location, which staff will monitor and adjusted accordingly, she said.

“Saanich is aware of the challenges and impacts of homelessness, and will continue to take steps to address this issue both within the district and Capital Region,” she said. “Saanich has been involved in a number of housing initiatives and projects through partnerships with the Capital Regional District, as well as the provincial and federal governments.”

She said the Parks Department investigates all reports of homelessness and camping as quickly as possible. If the site is an abandoned camp, staff will clean up refuse; however, if a camp is active, staff contact the police to investigate further.

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