Cook Street warming tent provides outreach to people sheltering in Beacon Hill Park

A community warming tent at the south end of Cook Street is providing outreach services to people sheltering in Beacon Hill Park but nearby residents and volunteers remain unsatisfied with the location.

After the City of Victoria granted a permit, volunteers on Saturday carried the ­modified 10-foot-by-20-foot vehicle ­storage tent from inside the park to its new home: several parking spaces on Cook Street, about 100 metres from Dallas Road.

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Shea Perkins helped set up the original community care tent, which was removed from Beacon Hill Park by bylaw officers in November because it lacked the proper permits. He said Monday it’s a huge relief to have a legitimate location so volunteers can focus on providing services for people without homes.

“We can stop focusing on fighting and start focusing on creating,” he said, as he and volunteer Anthony Bryan set up a second tent where electric heaters can provide warmth to people. The tent serves as a donation centre and provides food, water and harm-reduction services.

Located at the southeast corner of Beacon Hill Park, Perkins said the warming tent is about as far away as possible from people sheltering in the park.

“Unfortunately, this was the only option, and no location is going to be perfect,” he said.

Such a structure cannot be located in the park because of an ongoing lawsuit between the Friends of Beacon Hill Park and the City of Victoria that alleges that around-the-clock camping violates the trust governing the park.

Iain MacDonald, a nearby resident who dropped by to donate waterproof jackets, sweaters and blankets, said he’s heard people complaining about the location and he felt it was important to show his support.

“I don’t object to it at all,” said MacDonald, whose sisters are both psychiatric nurses. “People need a warm place to stay and to get clothing and stuff.”

The warming tent is operated by the Red Cedar Cafe Society, which received a $6,500 grant from the city. The non-profit, which provides free meals to people in need, delivers meals directly to people’s tents twice a day.

Jamie Kyles, who lives a few streets away from Cook Street Village, said the warming tent “couldn’t have been in a worse place” since people sheltering in the park will have to walk through the playground on Cook Street to access it.

“I understand it’s a complex situation and I have a lot of sympathy for the folks who are suffering having to live in tents,” Kyles said, “but I really think city council has screwed up big time with this. They have put this warming tent as far away from the centre of gravity of the tent population in the park as possible.”

An earlier plan to locate the warming tent on Avalon Street was turned down by Victoria councillors.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps acknowledged there was no public consultation on the location. “We’re in a global health pandemic and the people who are living outside need humanitarian aid,” she said.

The warming tent, which is located in about 10 street parking stalls and surrounded by a fence, was erected as part of the Build Back Victoria program that allows local businesses to expand their patio space into the street to create physically distanced outdoor seating during the pandemic.

“In the same way we didn’t consult about Build Back Victoria — we just did it because it was necessary for businesses — we set up this community care tent because it’s necessary for humanitarian aid,” Helps said. She agrees with outreach workers that the ideal location for the warming tent would be in Beacon Hill Park close to where people are sheltering. Unlike Douglas Street, Cook Street is not within the park’s boundaries, she said.

Helps assured the public that the community warming tent will be gone by March 31, the deadline set by the City of Victoria and the B.C. government to provide housing for anyone sheltering outside.

Attorney General David Eby, who is also the minister responsible for housing, has said the province is on the hunt for hotels or residential buildings that can be turned into ­supportive ­housing for people without homes. No location has been identified.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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