Playground opens at site of former tent city

School kids eagerly tried out a new playground on the courthouse grounds on Thursday where a controversial homeless camp stood less than a year ago.

“They loved it. You should have heard the screams when we said they could go over,” said Stuart Hall, head of Christ Church Cathedral School across the street.

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Grade 5 students from the school helped choose designs for the park months ago and have been watching the construction since. Metal fencing came down Thursday in what the province is calling a soft opening.

“There’s noting else like it in the area. We’ll be there a lot, the YMCA kids, the community — everyone will use it,” said Hall.

The playground was built after trees were planted and contaminated soil was removed from the former tent-city site, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The land is owned by the Ministry of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services, which had contributed about $60,000 to the playground as of March.

An anonymous donor gave $150,000 to the project and Tire Stewardship B.C. donated $80,000 for the rubberized playground surface.

The decision to build a playground came after public feedback about what to do with the small park. There are no playgrounds in the downtown core and more families are moving into the area. Overnight camping is not allowed in playgrounds, which would prevent a similar homeless camp from popping up again.

Mayor Lisa Helps said the playground is a good outcome from a difficult situation. “A substantial amount of housing also came out of this,” she said. “We have three new buildings to house people.”

The tent city started in the fall of 2015, when homeless campers discovered the provincially owned property was exempt from a city bylaw banning daytime encampments.

As the camp grew to dozens of tents with about 100 residents, the province tried to shut it down through the courts, but was stalled by a ruling that said the campers should be provided homes instead of being evicted.

By last August, more than $26 million had been invested in temporary and permanent housing — three buildings and hundreds of spaces — and the camp was shut down. The Justice Ministry would not disclose what was spent on court costs.

Helps said there is more work to do to help the city’s homeless and those with unstable housing. “Until we see some significant spending by the federal government, we are going to see these issues persist, not just in Victoria but across the country,” she said, adding the province, city and local developers can be part of the solution.

“If people who are gainfully employed can’t find an affordable place to rent in Victoria, how is someone on $375 a month supposed to do it?” she said, referring to the shelter portion of social-assistance payments.

The province said there will be a grand opening of the tent-city playground and an official naming in coming months. A memorial for soldiers who served in Afghanistan will also be installed by the Greater Victoria Afghan Memorial Project Society and dedicated at a ceremony on Sept. 30.

spetrescu@timescolonist.com

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