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Neighbours fed up with tent city next to Victoria courthouse

The provincial government is working with Victoria City Hall to deal with a downtown tent encampment next to the courthouse that has expanded in recent weeks while neighbours watched in horror.
Steven L'Heureux, left, and Gord Ross live in a tent city that is growing next to the Victoria courthouse. It began with one or two tents in August but has since expanded to 20 to 30.

The provincial government is working with Victoria City Hall to deal with a downtown tent encampment next to the courthouse that has expanded in recent weeks while neighbours watched in horror.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said city and provincial bureaucrats met Tuesday to see if something can be done.

“We are now all working hard to find a solution,” Helps said. “This is obviously top of mind and top priority for all of us.”

In recent weeks, the campsite has gained an all-day foothold on a spot bordered by Courtney Street, Burdett Avenue and Quadra Street. The land, an expanse of park-like, tended lawn, is owned by the province, so it is not subject to the same rules governing tenting in city parks.

At city parks, police and park workers normally wake tenters at 7 a.m. and require them to move on. But because the courthouse land is owned by the province, municipal rules don’t apply and the tents have been staying erected and inhabited all day.

Unhappy neighbours say the courthouse campsite has been growing steadily, from one or two tents in August to the current 20 to 30. As the campsite grows, so do disturbances, refuse, feces, crime and fear, they say.

Laurie and Don Allen, 17-year managers of an apartment building on nearby Burdett Avenue, said two long-term tenants, both women, told them Tuesday morning the streets have grown so scary they are considering a move.

The Allens and several tenants said nights are filled with screams, howls, the sound of breaking glass, arguments and fights. “I know they have to have some place to live,” Laurie Allen said. “But it’s damaging the whole neighbourhood.”

She said she has twice hand-delivered letters of complaint to the courthouse and has advised her building’s owner to consider suing the province.

Don Allen said he installed bars last week around the ground-floor apartments following a spate of break-ins and thefts.

Problems have included brazen attempts to cut window screens while a tenant was at home with the lights on, and a co-ordinated attempt by several people to break into three apartments at the same time. Also, a storage area was broken open and three expensive bicycles were stolen.

Someone lit a fire in a concrete urn in front the apartment building. When police and firefighters arrived, the fire-starter was seen diving into a tent.

The Allens said the past month has been the worst they have ever seen.

Manuel, a 42-year-old former concrete finisher who did not give his last name, said he and other campers want to consider themselves at home. They don’t want to be rousted in the morning and forced to pack and move, he said.

He said campers have been given tacit permission by courthouse officials. “We were told by the courthouse that if anybody tried to kick us out, to contact them and they would deal with it,” said Manuel.

The province responded to a request for comment with a statement: “The B.C. government recognizes the importance of keeping the Victoria Courthouse property clear and ensuring safe access by the public. We continue to work closely with the Victoria Police Department and the City of Victoria to find a solution.”

Victoria has faced other problems with tents and campsites.

In October 2005, after several incidents and court cases, about 70 people set up a campsite in Cridge Park near the corner of Blanshard Street and Belleville Avenue, complete with a communal kitchen.

That campsite grew, leading to disturbances and an accumulation of garbage. Eventually, Victoria police, armed with a court injunction, moved in and cleared people off without making any arrests.

City workers later filled several dumpsters with refuse in a cleanup.