Tent city residents say thank you with open house

Smokies, veggie dogs, chili dogs, mini-doughnuts and cotton candy were all on the menu at Victoria’s tent city Saturday as the homeless campers held an “open house” for the neighbourhood.

The tenters said in their Facebook invitation that the event was “open to all community members and supporters to thank everyone in the community for their support and donations. There are too many to name, so this is Super InTent City way of saying thank you.”

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The food and cooking supplies were provided by the Open Arms [Youth] Ministry, said its director, Jeremy Fast.

“All I did was give them the tools and then watch them succeed,” said Fast, who declined to say how much it cost.

“We gave them the means; they did the menu. They did the cooking, the prep. They did the organizing. We just gave them tools to succeed with their dream.”

Not everyone was impressed.

“It looks benign now,” said Peter Kerr, surveying the tent city dotted with colourful balloons. Smoke wafted into the air from both a cook fire and ceremonial sacred fire as people lined up for hotdogs from a barbecue.

“Come back after dark and stick around until midnight, when it really gets rolling. The yelling, the screaming, the drugs, the ambulances, fire engines for stabbings, drug overdoses, lights revolving, the theft,” said Kerr, who owns one of the apartment blocks across the street.

Kerr said he has sympathy for the plight of many of the campers — in that there are insufficient resources for those with drug addictions and mental-health issues. “What I don’t have sympathy for is their behaviour. As far as neighbours, they’re the neighbours from hell,” he said.

Kerr would like to see the province make good on its promise to see the tent city dismantled, now that the government has spent $400,000 to fund a temporary shelter for 40 homeless people in the former Boys and Girls Club building on Yates Street.

But as it stands, it looks as if things are going the other way. Residents are digging in, and more permanent structures are being put together on the site.

Standing inside a newly completed shelter on the site was a man who calls himself Mud.

“I just kind of wanted to show what a few good friends could do in a matter of hours for free when the province is wasting years and years and years and lots of money and getting nowhere. We did this in 12 hours — 22 pallets; all free-cycled except for one gracious donation of a box of screws, which I still have plenty of,” Mud said of the project.

“It was amazing. No fighting. Everybody just worked together. All the expertise of the entire community came here.”

About the size of a good-sized garden shed, Mud’s shelter is not unlike the so-called mini-housing that some tout as one of the solutions to homelessness.

Mud, 34, who has been living homeless in Victoria for the past 41Ú2 years, is a landscaper by trade. He said he gave up landscaping, looking to “get back to a more realistic standard of living — something that fits the natural order of things.”

If the powers that be could find a spot where he could move his new shelter, he said he would be happy to dismantle it and reassemble it there.

“I’d like to see me helping other people get something like this around them,” he said. “Because if we could slap a lock on the front door to make people feel safe leaving their stuff inside, if there was enough community activism in place for people to watch out for each other, what’s the harm?”

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, who regularly stops in at the camp, called the pallet mini-house “heartbreaking.”

“The fact that these people are resourceful enough to build micro-houses out of pallets is really a testimony to the kind of people who are living there and the kind of things that they want,” Helps said.

“It’s heartbreaking. We can’t find them homes. We can’t find them land. We can’t find them anything, so they are just taking matters into their own hands and building houses.”

Helps said she is working closely with the province to try to find a solution.

Police have said there hasn’t been a spike in calls for service in the area since the camp went up. In the first two weeks of this year, they have had one report of property crime in the area, compared to two reports in the same period last year.

However, Kerr said the camp is a nightmare for his building managers and his tenants — some of whom are asking for rent cuts.

Some people have been shooting up drugs behind his building. He has had to install bars on lower-suite windows and put in a fully enclosed bike-storage area.

“There are laws about trespass, squatting, nuisance,” Kerr said. “The rest of us fulfil and uphold those laws. I’d like to see them applied here.”

The camp has its supporters, as well. Neighbour Helen Walker supports the tenters and has made donations of warm socks and hats.

“I’m distressed that it’s here. I don’t particularly like looking at it,” said Walker, who doesn’t believe the tenters are the ones responsible for the perceived increase in criminal activity, as they don’t want to face a backlash.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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