No signs of upheaval as camping bylaw takes effect in Victoria parks

A young woman is polishing beach stones and wrapping them in fine coloured wire outside a cluster of tents she shares with friends on the west side of ­Beacon Hill Park.

Potato, her street name, has also made a sign — Hobo Art— and she is hoping to fetch $10 or $20 apiece for her rock pendants when she sets up on a sidewalk downtown this weekend.

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She wasn’t even thinking about packing up as a bylaw prohibiting daytime sheltering in city parks officially went back into effect Saturday.

Potato, 21, has been living rough since graduating from Vic High four years ago, couch surfing and sheltering on some days, but mostly camping outside.

“I just haven’t figured out how to live inside yet,” she said, citing claustrophobia and trauma in her life, including the death of a long-time partner. “It’s more complicated than most people think.”

There was little sign of ­movement Saturday at Beacon Hill as the province continued to prepare new housing for people taking refuge in parks. A 70-unit transitional shelter is expected to open Monday in Vic West, and a group of shipping-container homes next to Royal Athletic Park will open May 12. Several rooms are also expected to open in the coming days in a hotel already used for transitional housing on Douglas Street.

Collectively, the new spaces are expected to absorb all of those sheltering outside.

But until the new shelters are ready, some people will be allowed to keep their tents up in the city’s parks, even though the city’s bylaws permit sheltering only from dusk to dawn. ­Enforcement was suspended last year as shelters closed or reduced the number of beds due to physical-distancing require­ments.

Since then, the province has purchased hotels and other buildings to provide space for people to move indoors, and the city decided last month to ­reinstate the camping restriction. Eventually, those who refuse shelter could have their belongings confiscated and the city has the option of a court injunction to enforce the bylaw.

There was no evidence of such measures Saturday.

A camper named Max, who lives in a complex series of connected tents and tarps near the park’s bandshell, was busy fixing bikes he said were for his friends. A whiteboard leaning against a tall fir bore a message telling Nathan his bike was ready.

“I can’t do this in a hotel room or apartment,” Max said. “I don’t consider myself homeless. I’m just keeping busy and living rent-free.”

Jason, who lives in a tent on the old parade ground off Douglas Street, said he will take housing if it’s offered, but so far he hasn’t been told where he can go. He lost his apartment more than a year ago after splitting with his girlfriend and has been sheltering in various areas of Beacon Hill since.

“It’s dangerous living in parks because you’re so exposed to everything,” he said. “You have to keep track of people because there’s different layers in the homeless community … some you just stay away from.”

Parents with children and other park users steered a wide path around a camper near the petting zoo who was throwing his tent and belongings around, shouting obscenities that echoed through the trees on Saturday afternoon.

“That’s William, and he’s just having an episode,” said a nearby camper. “He doesn’t hurt anyone.”

Closer to the playground, Victoria police had four cruisers and several officers were talking with people after an incident, although it wasn’t immediately clear if it involved someone sheltering in the park.

“The sooner [the campers] go, the better,” said a woman on a nearby bench who wouldn’t provide her name.

B.C. Housing estimates there have been as many as 220 people staying overnight in the region’s parks in recent months, though the agency claims as many as 124 people have moved indoors since December. About 100 are being offered places to stay this week.  

With about 300 new shelter spaces opening in the coming weeks, the provincial housing agency said everyone in tents should have a place to stay.

“I just don’t think they are going about it the right way … they’re breaking up a very ­natural community here,” said Chris, 72.

Chris has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and is leaving his rooming house at the end of next month because of his difficulty wearing masks in a shared kitchen and dealing with the many stairs.

He’s on the list for ­housing, though he hasn’t yet been placed, so he has been biding his time with campers in Beacon Hill and is considering living there over the summer.

“I don’t think you can just pull people out of the park and put them in a room and think they will be OK,” he said.

dkloster@timescolonist.com

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