Fire inspector checks tent city for violations, no results announced

The B.C. government will await a fire-inspection report on Victoria’s tent city before deciding whether to go back to court and try to evict the campers, Housing Minister Rich Coleman says.

An inspector with the Office of the Fire Commissioner toured the courthouse encampment Wednesday afternoon to see if residents had complied with a fire-safety order.

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Coleman said the inspector’s report will determine the province’s next steps.

“If it’s strong enough to say that [the order] isn’t being complied with, and health and safety are at risk, then we’ll have to go to court,” he said.

The province failed in April in its first attempt to get a court injunction to dismantle the encampment.

But Coleman believes fire-safety concerns could bolster the government’s case.

The fire commissioner’s office inspected the encampment May 5 and ordered the landlord, the Ministry of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services, to fix fire hazards by May 25.

The order highlighted concerns about open fires, spacing between structures, use of flammable tarpaulins, inadequate exits, people cooking too close to combustibles and “excessive storage of combustibles.”

Camp residents and anti-poverty advocates are pushing back against the province, saying they were given insufficient time to comply with the order.

Christine Brett, a tent-city supporter and part-time resident, said campers received notice of the compliance deadline last Friday.

“I just think it’s a bit unreasonable for them to expect that in one business day and a long weekend that the camp would be able to address even part of the issues,” she said.

Brett said the government appears to be looking for any excuse to shut down the tent city.

“I think that they’re grasping at straws to find a way to sweep homeless [people] back under the carpet and into the alleyways and darkness, so that they’re even more invisible yet again.”

Brett dismissed as “completely untrue” reports of multiple children and youth living at the camp.

Representative for children and youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said last week that she knew of 13 youth at the site.

Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux later said that her staff was aware of only one youth living there.

But her office also released a letter that Cadieux wrote in January, stating that “as many as 10 children and youth” were living in or frequenting tent city.

Brett said a 16-year-old girl lives at the tent city, and only two other youths have lived at or frequented the encampment since it started last fall.

She produced a statement from a government social worker indicating that a tent-by-tent inspection identified only one youth at the site on May 23.

“I did not see, nor was I advised of any children and/or youth staying in tents on this site aside from the one youth that MCFD is already aware of,” the statement said.

The social worker expressed appreciation for the co-operation shown by tent-city residents and “their willingness to work collaboratively with MCFD to ensure that further youth do not access this site.”

Stephen Portman of the Together Against Poverty Society questioned Turpel-Lafond’s numbers and those in Cadieux’s January letter.

“I am not sure where the child and youth advocate is getting her information, but it does not reflect what I am seeing on the ground,” he said.

“The province led very little, if any, reliable evidence in the initial injunction hearing that demonstrated a rationale for the level of concern expressed by Minister Cadieux in her January letter.”

Portman added that tent-city residents take child welfare seriously, actively dissuade youth from staying at the camp and notify social workers if missing children show up there.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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