Park camping the only option for some homeless
VICTORIA — After a restless first night camped under the stars in this city’s largest outdoor park, videographer Mark Yuen and I decided to move on. We pulled down our tents and left Beacon Hill to the picnickers and tourists.
It’s easy to find other places where people sleep outside at night, for reasons that have nothing to do with adventure and wanderlust. The sad fact is, dozens of people in this affluent provincial capital live rough because they have no real alternatives.
There are an estimated 1,000 homeless people in Victoria, which has a population of 80,000. According to police, about one in 10 of the homeless sleep outside, some because they can’t abide the crowded conditions and rules in temporary shelters, others because they’re barred from such facilities, or because there’s no room for them. Permanent housing is a distant dream.
After a 2008 B.C. Supreme Court decision forced Victoria to amend its park use regulations and allow the homeless to erect shelters in local public parks, small tent communities have popped up across the city.
Kings Park is a patch of parched grass, squeezed between old wooden houses in Victoria’s middle-class Fernwood neighbourhood. Close to the downtown core and just three blocks from Victoria Police Department headquarters, the park and its homeless inhabitants are well known to local authorities.
Steve — like others, he chose not to provide his last name — has been sleeping in Kings Park with his wife since October, when, he says, police “relocated” them from B.C.’s lower mainland to Victoria, “due to a kidnapping … We were victims of crime.”
Authorities abandoned them, he says. Asked to elaborate, he refused.
Without funds, the couple has not found proper shelter. Without an address, Steve hasn’t landed a job. He’s a steel fabricator and welder by trade. He isn’t happy living outside, but says he’s caught in a Catch-22. He bristles at the notion he and his wife are camping.
“The last time I went camping, I had a burger and a cold beer,” he says. “This is survival, this isn’t camping.”
They share Kings Park with about six other regulars. Steve is the group’s de facto spokesman; he’s articulate and he tries to be fair.
Local residents have complained to the city about drug use in Kings Park. Steve says such activities “aren’t flagrant,” but they do happen, and he doesn’t blame people for raising concerns.
“We try to be as unobtrusive as possible, to be on our best behaviour. We kind of police ourselves,” he says. But, he adds, “we’re probably pushing things a bit.”
I leave Steve to speak with some other regulars. Any thoughts of spending the night in their company are erased when a man dressed all in black appears suddenly, holding a pistol. He points it at us and makes a shooting gesture. Then he holds the gun to his right temple. He walks away, the pistol still at his head.
Police are called; the man is apprehended and taken into custody. One officer tells me the pistol was only a replica. But the incident is unsettling. Yuen and I leave.
After negotiating with another group of homeless people, we set up camp in a small green space directly behind Victoria’s law courts, downtown.
Jay, a diabetic, sleeps there with his wife, who describes herself as an outreach worker. Jay steals fruits and vegetable from markets, he says, to survive. It’s a miserable existence.
No one bothered us that night; I slept soundly.
People walked by, on their way to work. Most avoided looking directly at us. One woman glanced over, and frowned.
Then we did what was easiest, for us. We drove away.