Victoria tent city faces legal showdown

VICTORIA -- Chris Parent says he was offered shelter space that includes a bed, bathroom and heat, but he's staying put in his tent on the grounds of Victoria's courthouse.

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Housing Minister Rich Coleman says the B.C. government has homes for every courthouse camper but some are refusing to leave, forcing him to go to court in an attempt to take down the camp. Coleman said he's already started looking for landscapers to clean up the grounds.

Parent is one of the more than two dozen people named in the government court application to evict the remaining homeless campers from the tent city occupying the lawn of Victoria's courthouse. A court date is set for Thursday.

"We are making a political statement," said Parent, who pitched an eight-person yurt at the downtown courthouse last November and adorned it with aboriginal art and Tibetan flags.

"Some of the people here have slipped through the cracks and we're looking for a place where we could feel at home," he said in a recent interview at the camp. "People don't want to leave here."

The camp has grown from a few tents last spring to more than 100 people as many of the homeless moved from alleyways and parks to the highly visible, manicured grounds of the downtown courthouse.

Victoria city bylaws permit camping overnight in parks if shelters are full, but require people to pack up every morning. The courthouse lawn is provincial property and not subject to the city bylaw, which saw the homeless set up more permanent living arrangements on the property.

But Coleman said the government and Victoria social agencies have provided housing for every camper, turning a Boys and Girls Club, seniors residence and youth jail into homeless shelters. He said the government is working to provide homes for vulnerable people in the camp.

"I think there's some people down there that have really been asking for a confrontation from me for about two or three months," said Coleman. "Once we take care of the vulnerable people, we'll have to deal with the people who are there for the wrong reasons."

He said the government has already estimated it will cost at least $350,000 to begin repairs on the courthouse lawn and shrubs.

A notice of application filed in B.C. Supreme Court last week says people living in the camp are trespassing and have defied repeated requests and orders to leave the property, despite the government offering other housing.

The application alleges the campers have compromised health and safety in the area by creating fire hazards, defecating in and around the camp, leaving used needles and syringes in the area, and engaging in criminal activity, such as drug trafficking.

None of the allegations made in the application have been proven in court.

Kelly Newhook said anti-poverty groups will be in court opposing the government's injunction application to evict the campers.

"We believe, and we believe Canadians believe, people have a right to live and have a home," said Newhook, executive director of Together Against Poverty. "People have a right to live and build community."

Dan McTavish, resident services director for Victoria's Cool Aid Society, said the courthouse campers are drawing public attention to the issue of homelessness.

"By gathering in one spot, they've really focused, they've really brought the whole discussion to a point, and they've forced a reaction from all of us," said McTavish, whose society is working with the government to convert a seniors residence into a new shelter.

Over recent months the community that developed among the campers convinced many to accept the offers of shelter provided by the government and social agencies, he said.

Bernie Pauly, an addictions scientist and associate nursing professor at the University of Victoria, said the camp puts a human face on the issue of homelessness, especially the lack affordable housing for many people.

"It definitely highlights and goes beyond what people might normally see or understand about homelessness," she said.



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