Victoria homeless camps at Topaz Park, Pandora avenue to be emptied

The B.C. government expected to complete the evacuation of two homeless camps at Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue in Victoria by the end of Wednesday.

Social Development Minister Shane Simpson said 308 people had already moved from the sites into temporary accommodations at hotels and other facilities, while another 30 were slated to make the transition.

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A small number of people had declined to move indoors, he said.

“That’s their choice. We’re not forcing anybody into housing. We will continue to be available should they change their mind later today.”

Simpson made clear, however, that everyone was to vacate the sites by the end of the day. “Our expectation is that that will occur and that people are packing up as we speak.”

The province ordered the evacuation of the camps last month to protect people amid two public-health emergencies — the COVID-19 outbreak and the ongoing drug-overdose crisis.

The initial deadline of May 9 was pushed to Wednesday to give the organizations running the shelters more time to prepare.

By 3 p.m. Wednesday, there were about 25 tents left on the Pandora corridor and people were still breaking camp and packing up their belongings.

It was a similar scene at Topaz, where fewer than a dozen tents remained and most of the owners were in the process of departing, said Kelly Roth, executive director of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, which was managing the outdoor shelter.

She said a few people were moving across the street to the Comfort Inn and Suites, which the province purchased last week for $18.5 million. Others had been connected with organizations and supports and were headed to different locations.

“The most excited humans are in hotel rooms with TVs and beds and showers and privacy,” Roth said.

Once everyone has left the encampments, the sites will be turned over to the City of Victoria, which will begin working with B.C. Housing to remove any tents and other structures, Simpson said.

Both sites will require remediation. The city has indicated that it will be asking Emergency Management B.C. to help cover the cost of the cleanup on Pandora. B.C. Housing, meanwhile, is responsible for remediating Topaz Park. Cost estimates were not released.

Roth said it’s unlikely Topaz will require extensive remediation since it was a sanctioned site with washrooms, staffing and ongoing maintenance. People were not using their own barbecues or heating fuels, and camp members were conscientious about keeping the place clean, she said.

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A camp along Pandora Avenue in downtown Victoria on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. - DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

As for what happens next, Simpson said the government has lease arrangements with some of the hotels and has secured 45 spaces at the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre for a couple of months.

“So they’re all on slightly different schedules by the nature of the lease arrangements and the agreements,” he said. “We’re working right now to … look at acquisition or the development of more permanent long-term stable housing, and I expect we’ll have more to say about the details of that in the coming weeks.”

Our Place Society is currently operating the Comfort Inn as a temporary shelter, but the long-term plan is to develop the site for affordable housing.

Simpson initially said the hotel would house 65 people from the camps, but he confirmed Wednesday that 93 people were staying there.

“Given the size and layout of the Comfort Inn and the experience of the operators, it was recognized that more people could be safely housed there,” his office said in a statement.

The government has said that all the sites will provide people with “wrap-around” supports, including mental health and addictions services, harm reduction, meals, health care and storage.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps issued a statement thanking the province for its efforts to protect the health of vulnerable people during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“It’s through working together that 308 people are now on the pathway to permanent safe, secure affordable housing with supports,” she said in a statement.

“There is still more work to do and the relationships built during this process will help with future efforts.”

Helps has said city staff estimate there are about 90 people living in places other than the Topaz and Pandora camps who need to be housed.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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