A roving tent city making its way around the CRD is now in Pioneer Park in Brentwood Bay. (Hugo Wong/News Staff)

Victoria’s roaming tent city makes its next move

Tent city leader Chrissy Brett said good relationships depend on police tactics

After two weeks in Saanichton Green Park, the roving tent city moved on Friday to Pioneer Park in Brentwood Bay. Over the weekend, their previous site was being cleaned up, with some patches of yellowed grass where tents were pitched.

The roving camp, led by Chrissy Brett, has been traveling to various municipalities since mid-September, when they first set up in Topaz Park in Victoria. Brett has been involved with a variety of public demonstrations, including the tent city by the Victoria court house and another in Duncan, all to protest a shortage of affordable housing and resources for people experiencing homelessness or addiction issues.

The tent city has occupied space in most CRD municipalities, and in a series of interviews with the Peninsula News Review, key players spoke about the group, their intentions and why they had more problems in some municipalities over others.

Before their arrival in Central Saanich, Brett said she met with District officials and the Central Saanich police, and said they were “very supportive” of people’s right to protest. She told them there were homeless people from all municipalities, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, being pushed to Victoria’s downtown core where there are more shelters and services for the homeless. She wants other municipalities to shoulder more of the burden by building facilities themselves or funding more housing or programs in Victoria if they cannot.

“To me, it makes more sense for the municipalities to sit down with each other and create a capital regional district housing plan,” said Brett. She said solutions could be tailored to the context of the municipality. As an example, she said Langford could create Indigenous housing and Sidney and Oak Bay could house low-income seniors.

She brought up Woodwynn Farms as an example of a transitional program where participants, once stable and sober, could transfer to no-barrier housing with fewer rules for residents. She was critical of the closure, announced after the Agricultural Land Commission twice denied their plan to build housing for participants on farmland.

“We know the statistics say it takes 3-5 visits to detox before somebody picks it up and gets it. Why can’t we create programs where we’re setting people up for success rather than failure three or four times before they get it right? Just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

She said different municipalities had different approaches to policing and bylaw enforcement, which helped or hindered their relationship. While experiences in View Royal and Langford were a struggle, they were happier in Colwood where the bylaw officer chose not to wear a uniform.

“It’s never really good news if you see someone in a uniform coming towards you. It’s not like they’re bringing birthday greetings or that you’ve won the lottery.” This, she said, was part of “trauma-informed practice,” where government services or law enforcement are delivered in a way that considers past trauma like physical or sexual abuse, poverty and racism — to avoid re-traumatizing people.

“I celebrate places like Colwood who have chosen to still be able to do their job but to do it with a bit more humanity and compassion and allow people a bit of dignity.”

She said she also had good relations in Victoria, Saanich, and Central Saanich. Cpl. Dan Cottingham said Central Saanich Police knew when and where the group would move in, so District staff got them some garbage cans, a sharps container and a portable toilet to keep the area clean. He called the tent city in Central Saanich “pretty meek and mild.”

“In fact, every time I drive by, I haven’t even seen a person there yet,” said Cottingham.

Cottingham said there may have been smaller incidents, but he saw nothing in the shift reports from other officers.

“We’ve been communicating them from time to time, and there doesn’t seem to be any issues.”

Brett was critical of the Oak Bay Police Department and called them difficult to work with, which she attributed to poor communication. A public statement tweeted by Oak Bay Police on Oct. 10, 2017 stated the tent city was to stay for a week, but Brett said they “jumped the gun.” Had they asked her, she said, she would have told them they were anticipating a meeting with provincial officials and they would need more time. They had already spent three weeks in Victoria and two in Saanich, so she felt Oak Bay could handle a second week before moving on. The group ultimately spent three weeks in Oak Bay.

She said there was a “personality conflict” between herself and the deputy chief, Ray Bernoties.

“We had a lot of angry texts back and forth. A lot of not-so-professional conversations in-person and over the phone,” said Brett.

When asked what the disagreements were about, she said it was regarding their choice to take “a more policing approach to our protest rather than working with us like the other municipalities have to allow us to make our statement and move on.” She said threats of arrests and fines for bylaw violations were not helpful.

In an interview, the Oak Bay deputy chief said “I don’t think personalities have anything to do with damaging a bench, or leaving hazardous material or our approach.”

“I think initially things went fairly well,” said Bernoties, “but then commitments were broken and hazardous material was located and more commitments were broken and so it deteriorated.”

“I can assure you that she had committed to one week in Oak Bay prior to me making any public comment about their commitment,” said Bernoties. He did not say whether he was told about the reason for the delay, but that ultimately “they broke their commitment.”

“Really, I don’t believe I changed my mind,” said Brett. “I was only responding to the province’s response that they needed another few weeks before they could sit down with us and meet about housing people here in the encampment,” she said.

When asked about the $3,000 invoice the District of Oak Bay had prepared ($1,500 for a damaged bench and 3 BC HAZMAT calls at $500 each), Brett said there were some members of the camp that did not abide by the group rules and chose to stay rather than move on like the rest. According to Brett, those who wanted to stay left behind items borrowed from other campers as well as a bucket of drug paraphernalia. She said campers are asked to clean up after every move, and she did not know that drug paraphernalia was left behind. She acknowledged they were not properly contained, but said if she was contacted, she would have removed the hazardous material herself.

“It wasn’t as though they were finding a needle in the bush over here or randomly on the lawn of the municipal hall. It was contained within one little area.”

BC HAZMAT spokesperson John Espley said needles were found beyond the container and in the bushes near Oak Bay Municipal Hall and at the cenotaph. Bernoties said sharps containers were provided by the District of Oak Bay in each location they stayed in.

A memorial bench in Oak Bay was sanded down and spray-painted gold, which Brett said was caused by a former paramedic with PTSD and addiction issues. She said he found graffiti carved into the memorial bench, which was right in front of his tent. He sanded it down, and “rather than just taking maybe the wiser choice to sand the bench and leave it, again, in conversation with him, he taped off the nameplate and…painted the bench gold.”

In a follow-up interview, Brett said she would not pay the invoice voluntarily and Oak Bay would have to pursue the matter through small-claims court.

Bernoties said he could not speculate on what Brett might have done had she been told about the needles, but that for public safety reasons “it’s important to have experts pick up needles where they’re likely to be retrieved which is why we used a team to do that.”

“Who should pay for the damaged bench and the HAZMAT teams, I guess would be my question,” said Bernoties. “In my view it shouldn’t be a senior living on their own, four streets away. Why should they pay for that?”

“Once someone breaks their word on more than one occasion you can no longer trust what they say, and then property gets damaged, hazardous materials are left, then it becomes a public safety issue that needs to be dealt with.”

He said that he would be prepared to present the invoice to Brett if she returns to camp.

“It’s unfortunate that it deteriorated the way it did, but I feel we were very compassionate throughout. Very understanding,” said Bernoties.

Brett said the roving tent city has allowed them to interact with citizens, bylaw officers and other district staff who may not have had to regularly interact with homeless people. The day before they moved from Saanichton Green Park, Central Saanich councillor Alicia Holman visited the camp to meet with Brett. The councillor said they brainstormed ways in which Central Saanich could help address homelessness and addiction.

She said the protest was peaceful has been because “the community has generally welcomed them” and because of good communication with the Central Saanich’s chief constable, Les Sylven.

“I really enjoyed our chat and have committed to coming up with a new motion that I’ll be making at an upcoming council meeting to come up with some real specific objectives or tasks I think the municipality could take on,” said Holman.



reporter@peninsulanewsreview.com

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