Residents near Topaz Park say the City of Victoria moved a tent encampment away from a new turf field for a photo op, and now it’s close to a skate park for kids.
Just before Victoria Mayor Marianne Alto and Victoria-Swan Lake MLA Rob Fleming turned up to open a new turf field in the park late last week, the enampment was moved to an area near the skateboard park at the request of city bylaw officers.
Local resident Gord Faller said the neighbourhood has been saying for years that having the camp on the tree line from Blanshard Street to near the washrooms is a bad idea, but nothing’s been done.
“And all of a sudden, it’s moved with 24 hours’ notice? They’re all moved from that place because they didn’t want, the mayor didn’t want, them in the photo shoot,” he said.
Faller said the neighbourhood thought with the Highland Games coming up in the park, the camp would be told to move on.
“We were thinking that was going to be the movement that we’ve all been waiting for,” he said.
“Then two weeks before that, the mayor does this.”
Faller said the campers have been moved to the spot where the city plans to build pickleball courts beside the skate park. He said having the camp moved next to a skate park for kids is a huge concern to neighbours.
“I have neighbours that haven’t stepped into the park since the giant tent city was there,” he said.
Hundreds of people without homes pitched tents at Topaz Park in the spring of 2020. Victoria police noticed a spike in criminal activity around the park and neighbourhood residents demanded the camp be dismantled.
The massive tent city was evacuated in May of that year, though a smaller version re-established itself over the last two years.
Asked about the move, the City of Victoria would only say that the campers were recently asked to move to a new area of Topaz Park in preparation for the Highland Games, set for May 20-21 in the park.
“Bylaw began requesting this move because people cannot shelter in an area where there is an event permit,” a statement from the city said. “Those sheltering in the park were compliant with bylaw’s request.”
The city has established rules for sheltering in parks that allow camping between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. but prohibit setting up camps in environmentally or culturally sensitive areas, playgrounds, sports fields, community gardens and horticultural areas, footpaths, cemeteries or on medians.
Tents must be four metres from no-shelter areas or private property lines, eight metres from playgrounds and 50 metres from school property.
Amy Allard, co-founder of the See Spring Mental Wellness Coalition, a peer-support group with a mission of creating healthy and supportive safe spaces, said she understands the frustration in the neighbourhood.
“The outrage came about because here there hasn’t been this seeming ability to move people, and give some respite to the neighbours for a long time now,” she said. “Neighbours have been threatened by some unsavory characters in the park.”
And now she said there’s real concern with the camp being moved close to the skate park.
“Why are they right beside the skateboard park where you might have some vulnerable youth who are kind of hanging out, killing time,” she asked. “It’s really not a good idea. Anybody with common sense can see that’s not a good idea.”
Allard said her organization has built ties with the neighbourhood and the un-housed, through its work establishing a “warm line” that offers an outlet for people to safely air their feelings, and other programs to help permanently house the campers.
“Many of [the unhoused] are concerned about the fact that they’re right beside the skate park. It makes them uncomfortable,” she said. “They’re like the rest of the population, you know — some are more responsible than others and some are more aware of the impact that they have on their neighbours.”
She also noted Topaz Park is unique in that it’s a large space that’s close to the Muncey Place supportive housing facility at 3020 Blanshard St.
She said a number of campers have been evicted from Muncey Place and because of its size, the park has been a draw for those who are loud or have severe mental illness and act out.
“They will gravitate to Topaz because they can have a little bit more space around them and they don’t necessarily do well with other people around them,” she said. “If you’ve kind of been pushed out of the block or pushed out of Stadacona Park or pushed out of other neighbourhoods, Topaz is kind of where you end up. And I feel really badly for the neighbours there.”