Homeless campers slow to take up offer of shelter beds

The Victoria Native Friendship Centre, which opened as a seasonal shelter on Oct. 1 in reaction to the region’s homelessness crisis, is accommodating about 20 regular guests each night — though not the ones it intended.

The centre at 231 Regina Ave. had offered about 10 spaces for residents of the tent city that was set up for five months in Regina Park in Saanich. The encampment has moved several times since September, and campers are currently set up on Ministry of Transportation land adjacent to the Patricia Bay Highway and the Saanich municipal complex.

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“The spaces were there and we certainly want to be of service to everyone, but they weren’t willing to concede on any of their demands,” said the centre’s executive director, Ron Rice.

Campers turned down the beds because they wanted to remain together and there weren’t enough beds for everyone at the shelter.

The centre also isn’t appropriate for couples, people who don’t want to be in a mixed-gender facility, or pets, since everyone is housed in an open gymnasium. The homeless encampment includes at least two couples and pets.

“I appreciate the security they have in each other, but winter is coming and people have to focus on the immediacy of the situation,” Rice said.

“Unfortunately, they decided it was more important to stay together as a unit than find alternative plans for the winter.”

B.C. Housing said it also connected with other shelters prepared to take in new clients, including Rock Bay Landing, Sandy Merriman Shelter and Arbutus Shelter, but those spots were turned down for similar reasons.

“Unfortunately, while some campers took up the offer, the majority did not,” said the Housing Ministry in an email.

Camp leader Chrissy Brett says the campers want housing, but that isn’t what is being offered. If they go to the shelters, they will be split up, staying on mats on the floor by night and left to fend for themselves on the street during the day, she said.

On its first night, the Victoria Native Friendship Centre shelter — open 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. with new mattresses, facilities and services — hosted just one person.

“We decided to just take a breath and do what we could do,” Rice said.

Twenty people are now using the beds regularly, leaving about five spaces free for drop-ins.

If a guest at the centre commits each day to returning the same night the bed is held for them, according to Rice.

“The slow transition probably helped us figure this out,” he said.

The high number of returning users has allowed centre staff to better assess their needs — they’ve even found one person permanent housing as of next month, Rice said.

Families using the centre’s day programs — including a daycare — are relieved it’s operating smoothly and safely, he said.

“For the most part, everyone is supportive,” said Rice, noting that neighbours expressed concern. “In the early days there was a backlash and we were surprised.”

As for the campers, they expect they will have to move on Wednesday, Brett said.

B.C. Housing said campers were informed Monday that “they would need to vacate the site within 48 hours, under the Transportation and Trespass Act.”

It’s not known where the campers will move.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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