Tensions build as Nanaimo tent city, ever more cramped, tries to expand

Tensions are rising at Nanaimo’s tent city with a new fire order being issued because of safety concerns and an attempt by campers to expand boundaries at the increasingly crowded site.

A Monday telephone meeting is scheduled with B.C. Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Selina Robinson to seek help.

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“We are in a crisis situation,” said Mayor Bill McKay.

“We want similar treatment that other cities have been given, particularly in the way of resources.”

Assistance is needed immediately, he said.

Noah Ross, lawyer for Nanaimo’s tent city, said the camp is growing.

“That’s a challenge but the camp has generally been running well. There hadn’t been too many significant incidents recently and it is generally peaceful.”

On Wednesday, tent city residents expanded their site by moving fences around the city- owned land at 1 Port Drive onto property leased by Seaspan. McKay estimated this added about half an acre to the size of the tent city.

Fences have been moved back to their original boundaries, McKay said.

“The property in question, which is operated jointly by Seaspan Ferries and Southern Railway of Vancouver Island, is an active rail and barge operation, and while a portion of the property may appear vacant at times, it serves as a necessary buffer between the camp and rail/barge operations,” Seaspan said in a statement.

“These operations support hundreds of manufacturing jobs on Vancouver Island and our first responsibility is to maintain the safety and integrity of the operations and our people.”

McKay said the number of tents at 1 Port Drive has climbed to 270, from 216 a week and a half ago.

It is impossible to know exactly how many people are living on the property, he said.

“Apparently, tensions are running extremely high,” McKay said, adding that the city is afraid this could lead to an “explosive situation.”

Homeless people at the site are caught in the middle, the mayor said.

He said he hears from people, some in tears, who have been robbed and swarmed in the area. Neighbours have called him to complain that their vehicles have been broken into and that drug paraphernalia has been left in the open.

City lawyers are providing information to the B.C. Supreme Court, which has not made a decision on Nanaimo’s application for an injunction to close down the four-month-old tent city.

In mid-August, the B.C. Supreme Court turned down Nanaimo’s application to enforce an earlier fire safety order.

Since then, additional concerns have arisen, said Fire Chief Karen Fry.

These include numerous propane bottles and propane containers being filled on the site, gasoline containers inside and outside tents, open fires inside tents and smoking inside tents, she said.

As well, more vehicles have been moved onto the site, creating concerns about access for emergency vehicles, Fry said.

Ross, the camp’s lawyer, responded: “There hasn’t been a significant fire event since the camp’s been there.

“Everyone in camp says the camp is safer than it would be if they were out in the woods or in the street where there weren’t people around.”

The fire department has legitimate concerns and people have been working to meet them, he said.

“If they do want to file another fire order, we’ll probably appeal it.”

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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