The tent city pitched between the courthouse and Christ Church Anglican Cathedral in downtown Victoria for much of the past year may be gone, but its impact on how the city deals with homelessness continues, says The Rev. Canon Nancy Ford, the cathedral’s deacon to the city.
“So many people have been deeply changed by this, in the church and without,” said Ford. The relationships that formed between the tent city residents and the police force and social services providers have shifted the way these two groups interact, from a more “doctrinaire, top-down authoritarian model” to a more “collaborative and relational one,” she said. “I think that is a huge shift.”
After months of legal wrangling, a July 5 court injunction authorized the provincial government to clear the camp. It was demolished August 14, after alternate housing was found for its 300 residents.
“To quote T.S. Eliot, it ended with a whimper rather than a bang,” said Ford, noting that the closure of the camp happened much more peacefully than many residents had anticipated.
Earlier attempts by the province to close the camp were unsuccessful after the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the residents were not posing a serious risk to themselves or others. However, by July, the situation had deteriorated to the point that Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson decided the camp was “unsafe for those living there and for the neighbouring residents and businesses.”
But Hinkson said that the province needed to find alternate housing for the tent city residents before forcing them off the land.
While the original plan was to have the camp closed by August 8, delays in preparing the former seniors’ home into which many of the campers were moving pushed the date back to August 12.
Ford said the transition was handled in a respectful way, and the needs and wishes of the campers respected.
“Although there was a push to make certain it was ready, there was give and take with the province in terms of when it was ready and then when people could move in,” she said. “It wasn’t top-down, it was a moving with, a being-with sort of model.”
Tents started sprouting in October 2015 when a group of homeless Victorians discovered a legal loophole that allowed them to camp on the lawn of the Victoria courthouse despite municipal bylaws that prohibit camping in public parks after 7 a.m.: because the courthouse lawn is on provincial land, long-term camping rights are protected by B.C. law.
In the months that followed, the camp swelled as more and more of the city’s homeless population pitched tents or built shelters on the piece of land at the corner of Quadra Street and Burdett Avenue. The camp, which called itself Super InTent City, became an extremely visible symbol of B.C.’s housing crisis.
Given its close proximity-Christ Church Cathedral is directly across Quadra Street from the courthouse lawn-cathedral parishioners quickly established contact with their new neighbours. Ford became one of the most visible ambassadors of the church in the tent city, often sitting in on leadership circles and advocating on behalf of the residents.
The cathedral provided material support for the community-opening up its washrooms, providing food and coffee, and hosting events such as dinners and vigils for camp members. However, a rise in violent behaviour in the camp, following the relocation of some of its stable members, caused the cathedral’s dean, Ansley Tucker, to call in May for the closure of the camp and the relocation of its citizens.
The provincial government renewed its own attempts to shut down the camp in June, leading to the court’s July decision to allow the relocation of the campers.
Ford said that the relocation of the 300 tent city campers does not mean an end to the city’s housing problems.
Recent federal government statistics show there are around 1,400 homeless people in Victoria, and with a vacancy rate of 0.6% (compared to a national average of 3.3%), housing in Victoria is a squeeze even for citizens who are not on the street.
While Ford believes there has been a sea change in Victoria resident’s attitudes about homelessness, she said that concerned citizens will have to keep up the pressure if they want to see systemic change.
“We really have to [hold] people’s feet to the fire,” she said.