Tent city plagued by violence and threats, police chief says

Victoria councillors have unanimously approved spending up to $113,000 in additional policing funds to deal with increasing crime and violence in the neighbourhood surrounding the tent city on the courthouse lawn.

Acting Police Chief Del Manak painted a grim picture to city councillors of drug use, violence and intimidation in and around tent city because street gang members have infiltrated the encampment. “The site is clearly not safe,” he said.

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Manak said police officers are regularly met with aggression at tent city; both residents and service providers are intimidated and many neighbours worry for their safety.

There are indications of weapons on site. There have been assaults, including a four-on-one assault where a man had his arm broken in six places, stabbings and open drug sale and use. Some victims of violence will not cooperate with police because they are worried about their safety, Manak said.

“I can confirm for you that there is a criminal element on site. There are street gang members that are living on site. There’s lots of threats of intimidation and violence. There’s drug trafficking that’s going on on site. When VicPD is there we’re dealing with it as best we can but we’re not there on a full-time basis which proves to be a challenge for us.”

Of the estimated 120 people at tent city, about 70 or 80 are truly homeless, he said. “Our estimates are that about 80 per cent of those on site are substance users or suffer from addictions of some sort.

“Clearly there’s been increasing public outcry for more police presence. The surrounding community doesn’t feel safe. We see that. Their concerns are legitimate,” Manak said. “They’re confronted daily with some of these street disorder issues. It’s in their face. They don’t feel safe and we want to provide them with an added level of safety and security.”

VicPD officers are at the tent city a minimum of four times a day in addition to call response

“Regularly our officers are met with aggression, insults hurled our way, attempts to intimidate the police and move us off site. That’s just something we’re not going to do or tolerate,” he said.

Under a safety plan which is to begin today the funding will see two officers deployed in a three to five block radius surrounding tent city seven days a week, six hours a day between now and June 11. The plan is then to scale the patrols down to two officers five days a week.

“We are going to be responsive and we are going to assess this every week. There may be a need to scale up. There may be a need to scale down the plan and we’ll adjust it accordingly depending on what we see in the community,” Manak said.

Manak said he’s asked the province to pay for officers to be deployed in tent city itself.

“I really feel that by adding officers in the surrounding neighbourhood and not having a police presence on site, it’s probably not going to be as successful as if we have police officers on site because people are coming and going from the actual tent city.”

The province is expected to make a decision next week.

Coun. Chris Coleman said there is no question that the situation at tent city has changed since the encampment began in November. ”I don’t think we are dealing with perceptions of safety any more. We are dealing with fears informed by tangible incidents that are increasing and increasingly dangerous.”

Coun. Jeremy Loveday, who has consistently voted against police budget increases believing the money is better spent on social services, wanted assurances that Manak wasn’t criminalizing poverty and seeking additional funds for “policing the poor.”

Manak said there hasn’t been a single complaint registered against his officers in their dealings with tent city.

Loveday supported the funding but said he’s also concerned about a shift in views toward tent city residents that is increasingly angry. “I’ve received emails and I’ve read many social media posts that startlingly call for violence against tent city residents. I just want to be very clear that hate speech is not welcome. Poor bashing is not welcome and calls for violence are completely unacceptable,” Loveday said.

Mayor Lisa Helps said that in addition to police, the fire department and bylaw officers are patrolling, and there’s daily cleaning of streets and boulevards adjacent to the provincially-owned site.

“The city is spending so much time and resources to respond to the concerns of neighbourhood and also to the concerns of the people who are at the tenting area,” Helps said. “It is our responsibility to provide extra police resources around the tenting area so that residents both housed and unhoused feel safe. It is the province’s responsibility to do the same for the tenting area.”

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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