“It sure looks a lot different,” says a man as he peers through the fence surrounding the green space of the Victoria courthouse Friday afternoon, looking at what’s left of what used to be a thriving homeless camp.
The statement was echoed by a handful of people who watched as crews hauled out debris after the camp shut down last week in accordance with a court order. The campers who’ve called the property home for the last several months have either moved elsewhere or into supportive housing supplied by the province.
During the past few months, the province has managed to house more than 300 people in Victoria, including a number of those who lived at tent city.
Updating media Friday afternoon, Housing Minister Rich Coleman said he was happy that everyone left the site voluntarily and there was a peaceful resolution. Now the work begins to remediate what’s left of the property.
A bulldozer was slated to arrive on Monday to clean up the remaining debris and a few structures built by some of the campers. Crews will also be testing the soil to determine whether it’s been contaminated.
Coleman figures the cost of cleaning up the site will be at least $250,000. The province is pondering what to do with the property once it’s been remediated.
“It’s certainly going to be something that’s a credit to the local community other than just some passive space. We’d like to put something in there that could be a benefit to the community,” said Coleman, noting a playground is one of the ideas being floated.
“Our focus will be to get it cleaned up, which will take some time.”
Tents started sprouting on the green space last fall after a few campers discovered the property is owned by the province, therefore city bylaws that only allow sheltering in parks between certain times don’t apply.
With no police forcing campers to pack up and leave every morning, the property grew popular among the city’s homeless, with more than 100 people packed onto the site at one point. In turn, area residents reported a number of problems with thefts, garbage and noise, prompting police to dedicate officers specifically to the site and surrounding area.
In a statement released last week about the closure of tent city, Acting Chief Const. Colin Watson said the department had been working towards a peaceful resolution with the campers.
“This increased presence helped keep things as peaceful as possible and helped to address the concerns of the surrounding community,” said Watson, noting several officers were injured in the course of their duties at tent city.
Late last month, four officers were hurt during a violent arrest at the camp where a man known to police had to be subdued with a Taser.
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps was at the site as it was shut down during the early morning hours on Friday. She felt relieved the campers moved without any confrontation, but noted this is just the start of addressing the city’s homeless problem.
A regional housing program will start rolling out in September, added Helps, which will provide $60 million over five years to build new housing. That’s when she suspects the community will see an even bigger change.
As for the possibility of another tent city blossoming in the city, Helps said as long as the pressure is on to build more housing and the funds keep flowing to do so, there shouldn’t be another homeless camp.
“It’s a travesty that in a wealthy country like Canada that the word tent city is even part of our vocabulary…there’s still 1,300 people or so in the region who are homeless, 200 of those under the age of 18,” said Helps, who would like to see a playground installed on what’s left of the green space at the courthouse.
“We’ve heard repeatedly about the need for a playground downtown. That would be awesome.”