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Police calls surge round Victoria's tent city

Calls to Victoria police requesting service in the three-block radius centred by tent city are up 46 per cent from the previous year. By comparison, the overall increase in police calls in Victoria and Esquimalt was 3.6 per cent.
Tents and shacks are densely packed at the tent city on the grounds of the Victoria courthouse, separated by clearings that serve as pathways.

Calls to Victoria police requesting service in the three-block radius centred by tent city are up 46 per cent from the previous year. By comparison, the overall increase in police calls in Victoria and Esquimalt was 3.6 per cent.

Between November 2015 and April 2016, 760 calls were made to the tent city area, compared with 521 calls in the same six months a year earlier.

Victoria Police Insp. Scott McGregor, who is in charge of the community services division, said the tent city outside the Victoria courthouse on Burdett Avenue represents a convergence of homeless people into a small area, leading to “a disproportionate amount of increased calls for service in this one concentrated area.”

Drug calls in the area have tripled to 27 from nine, while calls about violence more than doubled to 39 from 15.

“Neighbours are watching a rise in violent crime as the group at tent city morphs into a younger, more confrontational crowd, and we just want the government to act,” said neighbour James Campbell.

Campbell said neighbours want those in tent city to be cared for.

“Tent city is major inconvenience for people living here, but everybody that I’ve talked to wants the best for the people in tent city,” he said.

“They want them to get help, they want them to get treatment, they want them to get housing if that’s what is required. But looking over there at what the living conditions are and what’s going on, having drug addicts next to drug addicts all day long is not helping any drug addict.”

Kathy Stinson, executive director of the Victoria Cool Aid Society, which provides emergency shelter, health care and other services to homeless people, said some of the growth in call volume comes from increased vigilance by neighbours and concern for the well-being of campers.

“It’s not all about theft and violence. There are people calling in because they’re concerned about people that they see,” she said. “That’s a good thing.”

Still, police recognize that the tenor of tent city has taken a turn for the worse, causing concern among both neighbours and campers fearful of others staying at or visiting the camp, a situation they say they are trying to control through legal channels.

“We believe there’s a real drug element that’s on the site, no question about it,” McGregor said.

“There are some people who traffic drugs that are on the site and they bring a level of violence onto the site.”

Two incidents last Thursday prompted considerable concern from the community.

Just before noon, a woman was accosted by an aggressive man who grabbed her scarf from behind and demanded her mobility scooter at Rockland Avenue and Quadra Street, about half a block from the tent city.

In a letter to the Times Colonist, Ernie Kuemmel said his wife told her assailant she could not walk, but he persisted until she hit him in the groin with a book.

“She has used her disability scooter on her own throughout various parts of the downtown area and has never felt unsafe, but she now fears going near the tent city area when she is alone because of this encounter,” Kuemmel wrote.

Victoria Police spokesman Bowen Osoko said the woman, a member of the Mad as Hell group, was unable to give police a detailed description of her assailant.

Stuart Hall, principal of Christ Church Cathedral School, which is barely a block away from the encampment, said he had to escort a man off the school property.

The agitated man headed to tent city, “where it took several emergency response people to subdue him so he could be taken to hospital for treatment.”

The incident took place about 1:45 p.m. “No kids saw it, thankfully,” Hall added.

In an email, the principal said the school wants a resolution to the tent city. “The rapid increase in the number and severity of incidents in the neighbourhood in recent weeks, especially around the school and cathedral, is very concerning.”

Steven Hammond, a neighbouring homeowner and spokesman for the Mad as Hell Victoria group, which is opposed to the tent city, said the man in the school yard was so hyped up that he vaulted a high fence.

“People are terrified” of what is happening in the neighbourhood, he said.

Osoko said it is not clear that the man lives in tent city, but he was “suffering a state of excited delirium, which is often caused by a drug reaction and is an immediate medical concern.”

The man was taken to hospital and police are considering charges, possibly violating a court order to stay away from narcotics.

McGregor said there is a need for accurate numbers and statistics on concluded files that accurately reflect the incident, not just the description in the call for services. Police recently asked city council for additional funding for a policy and audit analyst, who is now in the process of being hired.

“Is it appropriate that police are now expected to gather and produce and analyze those types of statistics, or would it be more appropriate for a government agency to do that?” he asked.

Some calls to police about disturbances can result in mental-health apprehensions that won’t generate a crime statistic because there wasn’t a crime, McGregor said.

But for the caller, the sense of disturbance is great. “The person looking out their window now doesn’t feel safe in their own home,” he said. “Now they feel like a crime’s been committed and they feel victimized by crime, but it just doesn’t generate that crime stat.”

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