In a May 15 sermon at Victoria, B.C.’s Christ Church Cathedral, Dean Ansley Tucker announced she would be calling for the homeless camp-pitched across the street from downtown Victoria’s Christ Church Cathedral since October 2015-to be dismantled and alternative accommodation found for its residents.
“For several weeks, as some of the more stabilizing leaders of the [tent city] community have departed, we have witnessed the devolution of the campsite,” she explained. Matters that had been relatively well in hand, such as non-violence, tidiness, respect for safety and general neighbourliness, she noted, have “spiralled out of control.”
After months of advocacy on behalf of Super InTent City-the community of more than 100 that sprung up on the lawn of the Victoria courthouse on the corner of Quadra Street and Burdett Avenue-Tucker said that a “dramatic” increase in incidents” had caused cathedral leadership to reconsider its approach.
Things came to a head when a naked person was found in one of the cathedral washrooms, another individual began exhibiting symptoms of “excited delirium” and, on two occasions, children witnessed intravenous drug use on the cathedral precinct.
Given the presence of Christ Church Cathedral School within a block of the camp, Tucker said the cathedral needed to act in the best interests of the children.
Tucker reaffirmed the cathedral’s support for the tent city residents, but argued, “No one, including the campers, is being well served by the current state of affairs.” She said she plans on speaking with B.C. housing minister Rich Coleman and Victoria’s mayor, Lisa Helps, about the situation.
An attempt was made to reach residents of Super InTent City via Facebook, but no comment was forthcoming as of press time.
However, the cathedral’s deacon to the city, Nancy Ford-who has worked closely with the camp’s residents over the last eight months-said responses have been mixed.
While many in the tent city were “upset” about the announcement, others have been understanding of the cathedral’s position.
“Not everybody seems to think that the cathedral has turned against them, but they know that the relationship has changed,” she said. “I’ve said all along to folks that I’m still here…I’m going to do what I can, but there are boundaries.”
Super InTent City began when a small group of homeless Victorians learned that the courthouse lawn, being provincial rather than municipal land, is not subject to city by-laws that require individuals sleeping in public parks to decamp by 7 a.m. But since the first tents were pitched, the site has become a lightning rod for controversy in Victoria, whose high housing prices and 0.6% vacancy rate have made homelessness a major problem.
The camp has spurred government investment in housing alternatives-in the Mount Edwards Court housing project on Burdett Avenue, run by the Victoria Cool Aid Society, for example, or the Choices Transitional Home, run by the Our Place Society. But already there are waiting lists for both facilities.
C.J. Reville, once a prominent member of the tent city community, secured a spot before the lists filled up. He relocated to Choices, a renovated youth detention centre in the Victoria suburb of View Royal, which has space both for campers looking to build their own micro-housing and rooms in repurposed jail cells.
“It’s been decent,” he said of his experience so far. “They’ve got the ball running, and it looks as if they’re trying to implement as much as they can for structure and programs.”
Reville-who is still in touch with the tent city residents-was candid about the stress the community is under.
“After months and months, a lot of people experienced burnout-a lot of darker elements started moving in as things became aggressive, and you have to choose your battle,” he explained. “I saw myself bumping heads-a lot of other people did, too. And then other opportunities came up, with Choices.”
Housing and access to land are primary concerns, Reville said, but issues around addiction and mental health have played a huge role in the problem of homelessness.
“It’s a Band-Aid,” he said of transitional housing options like Choices. “We still haven’t seen the doctor.”
Stephen Portman, advocacy lead for the Victoria-based Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS), agreed. He noted that many of those remaining in the tent city are the “highest-barriered”-those facing the most significant challenges in finding actual housing-due to criminal records, substance addictions, and mental and physical health.
Portman said he doesn’t view the tent city as a long-term solution. Instead, he thinks the province should meet with the residents themselves and offer sustainable alternatives.
“We haven’t had a solution offered by the province,” he said, pointing out that affordable and temporary housing has been snapped up as soon as it is made available.
Instead, B.C. housing minister Coleman announced May 27 that the office of the fire commissioner had found the camp to not be compliant with a safety order issued May 11, and an interim injunction would be sought to evict the campers.
While the B.C. Supreme Court denied the provincial government a similar injunction earlier this year, the ruling had allowed for the issue to be reopened should circumstances deteriorate-which, Coleman argues, has been the case.
Portman disagrees with this approach, arguing that removing the tent city will cause “significant harm” to the campers, but he did commend the cathedral for taking a “nuanced and reasonable approach” to the issue.
“They feel that the safety of the children in their school is at risk, and they are going to take steps to mitigate that risk, and I think that’s entirely appropriate,” he said.
Tucker and Ford both confirmed that, in the meantime, tent city residents will continue to have access to cathedral washrooms, water and other services-such as recharging electronics-the cathedral has been offering.