The diocese of British Columbia is working to find land where micro-housing for the tent city that has sprung up across the street from downtown Victoria’s Christ Church Cathedral, can be built, says Bishop Logan McMenamie.
“We’ve been looking as a diocese at property we have,” he told the Anglican Journal in a phone interview, explaining that the synod office set up an asset management department after it started disestablishing parishes, and that he has asked the asset manager “to make it a priority” to look at where micro-housing could be built.
The tent city-dubbed Super InTent City by its residents-blossomed in October 2015, after a group of homeless Victorians set up camp on the courthouse lawn at the northwest corner of Quadra Street and Burdett Avenue. Because the courthouse lawn is on provincial rather than municipal land, the city’s camping bylaws-which only allow citizens to sleep in public parks as long as they clear out by 7 a.m.-did not apply.
Despite several attempts on the part of the government to evict the campers, the community that formed around the tent city has fiercely resisted attempts to force its relocation, turning to advocacy groups like Victoria’s Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS) to defend its right to exist.
It also found an ally in what at first appeared, for many of the campers, to be an unlikely place: the gothic bulk of the cathedral on the east side of Quadra Street.
The connection between the cathedral and the tent city began simply enough. After a staff meeting on a Monday at the end of October, the Rev. Nancy Ford, Christ Church Cathedral’s deacon to the city, decided to stop by the camp and see what was going on. She met a woman named Catherine, who was raking leaves. Catherine asked if the cathedral might have any bags for the leaves-she wanted to make sure everything around the camp stayed clean.
“She was very actively asking people, corralling people to come in to rake leaves and keep everything tidy,” Ford recalled. “So we had a conversation and I talked with some of the others…I made a habit of going over every few days.”
As the number of tents grew, the cathedral began taking on a more active role in the life of the camp, providing coffee and food in the mornings, a place to warm up in inclement weather and occasionally hosting dinners. In turn, the community gave Ford and other cathedral clergy a place in the daily talking circles, where members discuss issues facing them.
“[The Cathedral] has been a family for us,” homelessness advocate and former camp resident Joseph John “C.J.” Reville told the Anglican Journal in an interview over the phone. “They’ve been our neighbour.”
Like many in the encampment, Reville, 44, has had a life full of ups and downs. Born in Toronto’s East York neighbourhood, he left home at 16 after a “falling-out” with his parents. He landed in Victoria in 1994, and took up an itinerant lifestyle, travelling around the island and lower mainland B.C., and sometimes picking fruit in the Okanagan valley during the summer.
While he has gotten off the street “a whole bunch of times,” including during a stint in ministry training in Winnipeg through the Vineyard church (a neo-charismatic evangelical denomination), Reville said most of his adult life has been spent marginally housed or not housed at all. Before the tent city formed, Reville slept in doorways and public parks, awakened by the police and asked to leave if he slept past 7 a.m. Living in the tent city, he says, allowed him a measure of stability.
While there are issues of substance abuse and aggression in the camp (one resident died of a drug overdose in late 2015), he was quick to point out that these problems are not limited to the street community.
“Seeing it happen outside the front door of my tent is no different from hearing it down the hall of my low-budget apartment rental…It’s the same scene-it’s just you’ve got people out here on the street; they can’t really hide behind anything” he said.
What the tent city offers is a chance for the community to take care of its own, he says.
“We’ve been providing first aid; we’ve been defusing the situations. We’ve had ambulances more than once drop people off who were all messed up coming off of drugs or whatever, and they didn’t want to bring them to the hospital, and they’d bring them here.”
Reville thinks the real issue is a sense of paternalism on the part of the government, and an unwillingness to actually view the tent city as a partner, instead of a problem to be managed.
“[The government] keep[s] tossing scraps from the table, but they are not actually talking to anybody here,” Reville says, a point that Patrick Sibley, a member of Christ Church preparing for the diaconate who has been involved in the tent city for months, agrees with.
“As a society…we think they need to be put somewhere and looked after, and they’re saying to us ‘we can take care of ourselves,’ ” he noted. “If there’s one thing they’ve [proved], it’s that they’ve built a big, safe community that loves one another. You only need to spend five minutes there to realize that these people look after each other daily.”
While Reville was quick to note that not every level of government has been hostile-he praised Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps for her willingness to listen to the campers’ demands. But he feels the province has been slow to “get on board” with creative solutions to housing problems.
“I think tent cities are necessary at this point,” he says. “We don’t have housing-even if we had rent money for everybody in this camp right now, with subsidies and everything else, Victoria offers a 0.6% availability rate on rentals…Obviously, rent is way, way up there for something substandard.”
The province has, however, shown some willingness to confront the problem. A former youth detention facility in View Royal, a community in the Greater Victoria Area, was repurposed to provide spaces for camping and housing, and the Mt. Edwards Court housing facility, not far from the camp, has been opened to provide housing for a few dozen people as well.
Rich Coleman, the housing minister for B.C., has said that the province has housing for everyone living in the tent city-the problem is that the campers don’t want to move into it.
“I think there’s some people down there that have really been asking for a confrontation from me for about two or three months,” he told The Canadian Press at the beginning of March, after the province filed an injunction to have the camp removed. “Once we take care of the vulnerable people, we’ll have to deal with the people who are there for the wrong reasons.”
Coleman was unavailable for a comment when reached by the Anglican Journal.
While Reville has taken up the government’s offer of space at the View Royal facility, there are still around 100 campers outside the courthouse, and he thinks what the community really wants is land reasonably close to the city, serviced with electricity and plumbing, where citizens can erect their own dwellings.
It is a demand that Bishop McMenamie supports wholeheartedly.
“Shelters don’t work-they’re not safe places, and once you say ‘shelter,’ most of the people who are living in the street community will turn away,” says McMenamie. “[The tent city community] have homes-their homes are tents and structures. What they’re asking for is a piece of land somewhere where they can realize their dream.”
McMenamie has spoken on behalf of the camp with Shayne Ramsay, CEO of BC Housing, who he felt “to some degree understood what we were trying to do,” and also with Green Party MLA Andrew Weaver of the Oak Bay-Gordon Head riding in Victoria and NDP MLA Carole James of the Victoria-Beacon Hill riding (in which the camp is located). He has also sought meetings with Coleman and Premier Christy Clarke-so far, unsuccessfully.
Although the diocese has also looked into whether or not it has land of its own to offer the encampment, McMenamie says it doesn’t have any property in Greater Victoria that would be “appropriate.” There are properties in other parts of the diocese where building micro-housing could be an option, he says, but this would require campers to move out of the city.
The process of finding diocesan properties suitable for micro-housing will take some time, since it involves working co-operatively with parishes and Anglicans on the ground-and it still isn’t clear how many in the encampment would be willing to relocate to a less urban area, he adds. But it is an issue he will bring to the diocesan synod when it meets this month, along with the more general question of affordable housing.
While the future of the camp remains uncertain, one thing is clear: it will not be disbanded anytime soon.
In an April 5 ruling, the B.C. Supreme Court denied the province’s request for an injunction to evict tent city residents, with Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson arguing that the province would not suffer “irreparable harm” from letting the encampment continue.
This hasn’t stopped pushback from Victorians unhappy with the camp-a citizens’ group called Mad as Hell continues to agitate for eviction, citing a rise in petty theft and arson in the tent city neighbourhood, and the province has already filed for a second, permanent injunction against camping on the courthouse property, which will be heard September 7.
But McMenamie argues that eviction into temporary housing would only serve as a stop-gap measure to a problem caused by stagnant wages and soaring property costs, which have exacerbated the issue of homelessness in B.C.
“I think that people will be here until they find housing somewhere else,” he says. “But…there’s a whole societal issue around how the government really needs to look at the benefits that are given out to folks. There are people who…have a job, but the money they bring in, because of minimum wage, does not allow them to get an apartment or a house.”
Ford agrees. “There are huge structural issues…You might want to move people off the land, but what’s going to happen next?”