A small group of homeless people camping in a Fernwood park have drawn complaints from nearby residents, who say the public space is no longer free for everyone’s use.
“It’s been going on for weeks — it’s like a tent city,” said Creole Carmichael, a jewelry designer who lives on nearby Pembroke Street, a block away from Kings Park at 1150 Caledonia Ave.
Carmichael said she has called police and the bylaw office to complain, but “they don’t do anything.”
She also took to Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin’s Facebook page to air her concerns.
“There’s no washroom facility. You can imagine what it’s like in there,” said Carmichael, who has not gone into the park since the campers set up.
In 2009, the B.C. Supreme Court upheld a judgment allowing tents to be set up in public parks from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., ruling temporary shelter is protected under the charter right to life, liberty and security of the person.
“We take our tents down every morning,” said David Hennebury, who has stayed in the park for three weeks with about a dozen others. “This is a small settled crew, and we take care of the place. Everyone cleans up. If they don’t, they’re out.”
By mid-morning Wednesday, Hennebury said, police and bylaw officers had come by to remind campers — both men and women — to take down their tents. An elderly man packed his belongings on a bicycle while others sorted themselves at the back of the lot-sized park, which has a few trees and benches.
Hennebury was lying on the grass eating a pastry from the Mustard Seed reading Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris. The 64-year-old said he was once a real estate agent and a welder and battled alcoholism before ending up homeless, living in his car.
He lives off a monthly $446 pension, gets mail and messages at Our Place Society, and said he and the other campers walk to the 24-hour McDonald’s on Pandora Avenue to use the washrooms.
“We take care of this place. It’s a nice place to be, with the ravens, sparrows, squirrels and robins,” he said.
Ken Prowse, 53, spends his days working on nail polish paintings.
“It’s like a zoo in here in that everybody goes by, takes pictures of us. Like a homeless zoo,” he said. “This is a good place. It’s near everything. There’s no kid equipment. It’s quiet. We’re not bothering anyone — except maybe the neighbours who think we lower their property values. They don’t use the park anyway, they have lawns.”
Prowse has been homeless since last August, when he was one of several residents forced to move from a rooming house at 959 Balmoral Rd. after a mass eviction. He left willingly, for $100 cash, but all his belongings were thrown in a garbage bin and he hasn’t been able to find housing since.
“I stayed with my sister for a while but that didn’t work out,” said Prowse, who is on a disability pension. Since last year, his hair has matted and he’s thinner. “Beacon Hill is too crazy to stay in. The birds are so loud.”
Victoria police go by the park to do wake-up calls and see that bylaws are being followed, said police spokesman Const. Mike Russell. Since May 1, there have been 29 police calls to the park and one arrest related to an assault.
Homeless people have been known to camp in the park in the past. In 2011, a bylaw officer was acquitted of assault after a violent confrontation with a man in the park.
The small green space has also been used for occasional community events, and was a Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival venue for a musical in 2010.
Tony Sprackett from the Fernwood Community Association said he has heard a few anecdotal grumblings about the Kings Park campers.
“Someone said they hopped the fence and used their power,” he said, noting he feels for the campers. “But obviously it’s not a sustainable thing. There are no facilities.”
Victoria Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe said bylaw officers monitor the park but are limited by the court ruling.
“If you don’t have a tarp or a tent up you can basically be there all day,” she said, adding the seasonal closing of winter shelters and recent fire in View Towers could have exacerbated the city’s homelessness problem. “It’s a fine balance recognizing that people need a place to live and also addressing neighbours’ concerns.”
Yuka Kurokawa, a legal advocate with Together Against Poverty Society, said concerned residents should be upset — but not with the campers.
“They should be upset at a system that leads to people sleeping in parks,” said Kurokawa, who worked with the evicted Balmoral residents. “It goes to show there can be severe consequences for tenants who aren’t treated fairly by landlords or [who] fall through the cracks.”
Andrew Wynn-Williams, executive director of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, said, “It’s no surprise people are camping when the city’s shelters operate at 100 per cent capacity.”