From a condo to a tent: Life in Beacon Hill Park

‘This is just a blip in my life,’ camper says

A few months ago, Chris was living in a $600,000 condo. Now, after his second divorce, he sleeps in a tent in Beacon Hill Park.

“I slowly lost all of my stuff,” said Chris, who’s on the hook for monthly spousal support payments he can’t afford to pay. Chris asked that his last name not be published to protect his ability to find work in the future.

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The trained carpenter spent two months living in the former homeless camp in Topaz Park, before moving to a temporary shelter bed at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, where he said he was promised safety and power to charge his phone.

“Those are the two items that they do not have,” Chris said. “I got robbed. Guys are pulling knives on people.”

Chris thought the shelter would be a step toward housing, but after returning to his bed one day to find all of his belongings gone, he left to join campers in Beacon Hill, where he sleeps with a bat in his tent for protection.

In the park, he’s been robbed of his wallet, clothing and an inexpensive laptop with important documents related to his marriage. He said he recently recovered some of his possessions in someone else’s tent after police arrested a young man on a warrant.

“You can’t find work like this. It’s like, if I come home, everything’s gone.”

Whether it’s due to divorce, job loss, injury or substance use, everyone living in the park has a set of circumstances that led them there.

What many have in common is the belief that stable housing is what they need to change their lives, find work and create hope for the future.

While they say Victoria is offering more help to the street community than many other cities, they share a frustration that there is still not enough support for the growing numbers who need it.

And a lack of communication between those with decision-making powers and campers has left many with dashed hopes of getting into housing that could change their lives.

Nebs, as he’s known to his community, sleeps in a tent in the same area of Beacon Hill as Chris. He was also living in Topaz Park before it was cleared out under a provincial order.

Nebs, who also asked not to have his last name published, said he gave his name and information to about 10 people working at the camp while they were preparing to move people into hotel rooms.

“I thought I was getting on some list, but I wasn’t on any list,” said Nebs, who used to work in information technology and has owned a computer sales business.

Nebs, a father of two teenagers, has struggled with fentanyl addiction and takes methadone daily to stave off withdrawal symptoms. He relapsed when he and his wife separated last summer after 21 years, and he lost his house on the Gorge.

“I’m hoping that I can get a room so when I go into detox and stabilization, I have somewhere to go to, right? I don’t want to come back out on the street. This is just a blip in my life. I’m hoping it’s going to be over soon.”

Between late April and May 24, 344 people moved into hotel rooms funded by the province from camps in Topaz Park and on Pandora Avenue. The province has spent about $33.5 million to purchase two Victoria hotels where more than 160 former campers are living, with a long-term plan to redevelop the properties into affordable housing.

A spokesman for B.C. Housing said in an email that the province started by offering indoor accommodation to people who were more vulnerable to COVID-19 and at higher risk of contracting the virus.

The province and outreach organizations have previously said everyone living in the former camps had been offered housing indoors, but B.C. Housing acknowledged that a census count taken at the start of the decampment process did not account for fluctuating populations in the camps.

“It’s possible that additional arrivals at either of the sites at the end of the process may not have been moved into housing or shelter,” spokesman Matthew Borghese said in an email.

Borghese said B.C. Housing has secured 505 indoor spaces in Victoria since March, most of which are full or have been assigned.

Outreach teams continue to visit people camping in Beacon Hill and elsewhere in the city to help people fill out applications for supportive housing, Borghese said, and anyone who is looking for a place to stay indoors can connect with an outreach worker at The Harbour on Pandora to get on a waiting list.

He said B.C. Housing recognizes more supports are needed and it’s looking at ways to bring more people indoors, including by purchasing spaces or building.

Phil Desgagne, who has been living in Beacon Hill for a few weeks, said almost everyone in the park wants to get into housing, but no one knows how to. He said there’s a lot of lists being created, but they don’t seem to lead to housing.

“You can’t just house 70 per cent of the homeless and leave the rest out to dry. How do you decide who is who?” Desgagne said.

Victoria city council voted last month to allow camping at Beacon Hill until at least June 25, but with that deadline looming, Desgagne wonders where he’ll go if the city decides to evict campers.

“If they do decide to kick everybody off, I feel everybody should go camp out on the front lawn right in front of the parliament building there,” he said. “I think it’ll get the city’s attention having all of the homeless right in the front yard.”

A camp in Centennial Square is growing, and there are many people in the city in need who are less visible, like Jason Chadwick.

The 37-year-old former chef spends his nights sleeping on a shelter mat on the floor of First Metropolitan United Church. He recently started a job with Solid as an outreach worker at an overdose prevention site. And he dreams of going to school to study counselling or social work, but he says as long as he doesn’t have a stable roof over his head, his energy goes toward surviving each day.

“You know, where am I sleeping tonight? Where am I going to get access to a bathroom or a shower?”

These are questions that have become harder to answer since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced facilities to close their doors and created new challenges for those living on the street, making a difficult situation harder.

“It’s really made living on the street very, very, very difficult,” Chadwick said.

He worries about losing his new job if he can’t show up to work clean, showered and on time, and with physical distancing measures in place, it’s nearly impossible to keep his phone charged.

“So, housing is really kind of the linchpin to my future right now. It’s essential.”

Rev. Al Tysick, founder of the Dandelion Society, which supports the street community, said the province deserves credit for getting hundreds of people into housing quickly during the pandemic.

“Some of the places that were provided recently are just great — their own TV, their own room — just really great. And I’m happy with that,” he said.

At the same time, people have been left behind, because there aren’t enough rooms, he said.

Tysick, who spends his mornings on downtown streets and in parks providing food and support to those living outside, estimated there are about 200 people sleeping rough in Victoria’s core, and nearly everyone wants to get into housing.

“More housing needs to be found,” Tysick said, adding the community should have access to essential needs like toilets and showers, which have become scarce commodities with so many facilities closed due to COVID-19.

“I’m talking to people at Beacon Hill Park that haven’t had a shower since Topaz closed,” he said. At a time when washing hands regularly has become a key message from public health officials, people living in tents don’t have access to sinks.

More than 5,000 people have signed an online petition to “save” Beacon Hill Park, asking the city to remove campers.

The petition cites concerns about children playing next to tents, needles and human waste, the loss of some picnic tables to campers, fears of walking through the park at night and the effect of camps on sensitive plants.

“People are saying you’re wrecking the grass. Wrecking the grass, when we have a big number of overdoses here — the biggest ever — and we’re going to worry about wrecking the grass. I have a little problem with that,” Tysick said. “I want us to be a caring community. The more caring we are, the better as a country and a community we will be.”

Cynthia Diadick, who started the petition, has lived within two blocks of the park for 25 years and said the main concern of residents is safety.

She recognizes removing campers means displacing people with nowhere else to go and acknowledges the need for social housing, but said she feels increasingly unsafe in Beacon Hill and was threatened by someone several months ago in the park. “I think people who are citizens of a community deserve to be protected.”

Mayor Lisa Helps addressed the petition during a community drop-in held online on Tuesday, saying she has no easy answers to residents’ concerns. “This is the issue that keeps me up at night.”

Helps said she understands that the park is precious to many residents, but there’s nowhere else for people to go. She said people who may have been crashing with friends before COVID-19 were put out in the street when fears of the virus hit.

“Moving people around doesn’t solve the problem. It just moves the problem,” Helps said, noting that camps are also growing in other cities around the country.

She said there are more motels sitting empty in the city and it’s important to keep pressure on the provincial and federal governments to buy another building.

“I really do think our best solution is another motel,” Helps said.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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