She’s been living off and on the streets for most of her life, but Catherine doesn’t consider herself homeless.
The 63-year-old claims to be one of the first people to discover the loophole that’s allowed a tent city to sprout on the lawns of the Victoria courthouse. The property is owned by the province, therefore city bylaws that only allow sheltering in parks at certain times don’t apply.
Catherine is proud of her home made up of two tents that serve as bedrooms, with a large living space covered with a tarp in between. She uses an air mattress as a sofa, and has a mini closet with a few clothes neatly dangling off hangers.
“Just because we don’t have a mortgage doesn’t mean we are homeless,” said Catherine, who did not want to publish her last name. “People should see our homes. They are actually very comfortable.”
Even though more than 100 shelter spaces have now been provided during the last few months for residents of tent city, the green space along Burdett Avenue looks virtually the same as it did when it blossomed last fall. Many people have left the site, only to be replaced by another wave of campers.
Catherine has noticed there’s been a lot of people coming to Victoria from other parts of Canada. She estimates about 90 per cent of the people living on the streets are not from Victoria, which is why city shelters should have two lists — one for out-of-towners and the other for local residents.
“People from Victoria are finding it really tough. People from Edmonton form alliances, from Toronto form alliances and you have different groups happening here. Before it was just Victoria,” said Catherine, who grew up in Victoria. “It’s a hamster wheel. They keep advertising Victoria is homeless friendly. It keeps the money coming in.”
Other tent city residents have noticed the same trend and so have Victoria police.
During the last two months, officers have seen a substantial increase in the number of new people they’re encountering on city streets — which is more commonly seen during the summer months. Many are from other parts of Canada.
Shelters in the city, however, haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary so far this year and neither has Al Tysick, former executive director of Our Place Society and founder of the Dandelion Society.
Known as “Rev Al” by Victoria’s street community, Tysick hits the streets every morning with coffee, muffins and whatever warm supplies he has to offer. He’s been working with people living on the streets for the last 35 years and has seen some major changes during that time, but he claims there’s no more homeless living in Victoria than any other city with the same population.
One trend Tysick has noticed, however, is that more people typically arrive at tent city at the end of each month.
“We’ll get people setting up a tent because they have been evicted or whatever the reason to come to tent city. It’s always changing over there,” said Tysick, noting some people simply set up tents to stash their belongings.
“It’s not like everyone is flocking here…We’re not any different than other place.”
A recent study by Simon Fraser University reveals that a growing number of those experiencing longstanding homelessness and mental disorders in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside have migrated from elsewhere.
The study’s author, Dr. Julian Somers, found during the past 10 years, the number of people coming from outside Vancouver into the downtown Eastside rose from 17 to 52 per cent.
Their involvement with health, justice and social assistance services also increased significantly during this time.
In Victoria, the city conducted a survey in February to get an estimate of the number of people experiencing homelessness in the community. An estimated 435 surveys were completed by volunteers during the 12-hour count, but official numbers have yet to be released.
According to Tysick, past surveys have shown most people come from other parts of B.C., and only two per cent are from outside of the province. He doesn’t believe the improving services for homeless people in Victoria will attract more people from outside the province to move to the city.
“I deal with seriously mentally ill, seriously addicted, there’s not pre-planning. They get on a bus and go,” said Tysick. “Look at the city of Ottawa or Hamilton or Halifax and you’ll see they have the same issues facing them right now. They are not all flocking here because we have great weather. Yes, some do come, but some do leave.”