For Roland Hanna, Reeson Park is the safest place in the city.
Every night at 7 p.m., Hanna pushes his cart full of his and his girlfriend’s belongings to the park, nestled on Wharf Street between Yates and Johnson streets. In the hour after he arrives, he’s busy pitching his tent, organizing items and making sure he’s comfortable and settled in for the night.
The 31-year-old, who came to Victoria from Calgary, has been living on and off the streets for the past decade, but it’s only within the last month he’s been living at the park that he feels he’s at home.
“For the most part, this is the safest spot in the city,” said Hanna, a former carpenter who lived paycheque to paycheque for years before eventually losing his job. “It feels way safer than any shelter that’s available or any low-income housing that’s available. Everyone here is a community. We’re a small family created out of need.”
That need, said campers, is a safe place to sleep at night.
Hanna is one of roughly three dozen people who have started camping overnight at Reeson Park, which the residents have named “Chattel Tent City,” in recent months. Residents of the park, former tent city residents and the Alliance Against Displacement came together Tuesday afternoon to demand affordable social housing or a dedicated space within the city where they can set up camp permanently.
The camp is the second one to spring up in Victoria within the past year-and-a-half. In August, the Supreme Court ordered the tent city on the lawns of the courthouse, which had been home to some 80 people for about a year, to shut down.
Since then the province has opened a number of transitional shelters, including the facility at 844 Johnson St., run by the Portland Hotel Society, which accomodates 147 residents and provides two meals a day. The province also purchased the former Super 8 Hotel on at 2915 Douglas St., which has 51 units.
Another 150 transitional and shelter spaces are available at the former youth custody centre in View Royal, My Place in the former Boys and Girls Club downtown, and First Metropolitan Church.
But Reeson Park campers and others say the shelters are unsatisfactory, noting the restrictions on the times they’re allowed to come and go, and video camera surveillance, violate their rights.
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said while the city and the region continues to advocate for affordable and social housing, including the $60-million Regional Housing First Strategy, which will bring at least 880 units in the next five years, setting up another permanent tenting area is not the answer.
“In terms of a permanent tenting area, I think we saw how that didn’t work, but I think we do need to keep pushing for people to have places to sleep,” she said, adding, she hopes to work with the province to re-open the roughly 60 shelter beds which were seasonally closed at Cool-Aid and Out of the Rain Youth shelter in recent months, until there’s adequate housing available.
In the meantime, Hanna is hopeful a long-term outdoor sheltering solution or a place to store one’s belongings can be established.
“You can’t go out and find work if you have to haul all your possessions with you. You can’t go into stores, you can’t go and get food, there’s nothing you can do when all your posessions are attached to you. We need a place where we can set up permenantly and have a chance to better ourselves,” he said. “We don’t want to create an eyesore, we just want a place to live.”