On an average summer Saturday in Victoria, B.C., Beacon Hill Park’s 200-acre grounds play host to games of pickup volleyball, mothers with strollers visiting while maintaining physical distance, and picnics on the green.
But tucked between trees, often in groups of two or five, are tents of unhoused Victorians. These encampments provide a place to shelter off the streets, but park residents say these are far from proper living conditions.
“We don’t want to live in the park — we take a lot of discrimination, there’s a lot of stigma and hate speech towards us,” said Shae Smith, who has been unhoused in Victoria for about 22 months, with 19 months spent living in encampments.
“There’s not someone who wants to see us out of here more than we do.”
At Beacon Hill Park, conflict over the right for unhoused residents to camp in parks — and what the future of support for those on the streets will look like — has come to a tipping point.
Over 25,000 supporters have signed a petition calling for the enforcement of a bylaw that prohibits sheltering in public parks outside of 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and the Friends of Beacon Hill Park Society has announced plans to sue over the city’s decision not to enforce this bylaw.
In response, a counter-petition, which has accrued more than 3,500 signatures, asks that the government pursue compassionate avenues rather than outright displacement.
Unhoused residents of the park are calling for modular affordable housing and access to temporary shelter, as many feel left behind with local housing projects at maximum capacity.
In response to mounting demands, Victoria City Council called a special closed meeting on Aug. 27 to discuss the bylaw. On Sept. 3, Council will make the public aware of any decisions they may have reached on the fate of encampments in the city.
Limited income, full shelters
Encampments like those in Beacon Hill Park are not new to Victoria, but many people feel they have become more visible since the start of the pandemic, when a mass shutdown of shelters across the city forced many unhoused Victorians out onto the streets.
The 2020 Point-In-Time count, a biannual survey of those living unhoused in B.C.’s Capital Region District, conservatively estimated that at least 1,523 Victorians were unhoused as of March, with 620 of those unsheltered or placed in emergency shelters. In 2018, Point-in-Time counted 1,525 unhoused people, although due to changes in methodology over time, the data is not necessarily indicative of a trend.
Of those surveyed in 2020, the majority stated their primary hurdle to housing was not enough income.
In a recent survey conducted by listings website PadMapper, Victoria was named the fifth-most expensive city for rentals in Canada. In 2019, the city had a 1.2 per cent vacancy rate.
In response to rising concerns around COVID-19 earlier this year, encampment sites in Topaz Park and on Pandora Avenue were shut down and housing was provided for close to 500 people who were unhoused or at risk of homelessness in hotels bought and leased by the provincial government. The Save On Foods Memorial Centre was repurposed into a 45-bed shelter.
However, spaces in shelters and housing facilities are now full, leaving those still on the streets to fend for themselves while waiting for vacancies to appear.
No walk in the park
Since 2009, a B.C. Supreme Court ruling has protected the rights of unhoused individuals to camp temporarily in public parks in situations where municipalities were unable to offer alternative shelter. In spite of comments made by Premier John Horgan pushing for bylaw enforcement, the City of Victoria has decided to not enforce their “‘7-to-7” bylaw, choosing to adhere to advice from provincial health authorities on sheltering in place.
“Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as simply enforcing the camping bylaw without a better plan in place,” said Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps to the Times Colonist. “Because where will 300 people go all day with all of their things?”
Smith, who started the podcast The Homeless Idea to highlight the challenges faced by those impacted by this bylaw, supports the city’s decision.
“Nobody can move every 12 hours and be expected to live a normal life that way,” he said, adding that some residents currently work full-time jobs while saving to afford rental accommodation. “That’s just a life of misery, honestly.”
Some members of the community are critical of the City’s decision, including Janice, a founding organizer of Save Beacon Hill Park, a Facebook group that wants to end 24/7 sheltering in the park. Janice requested her last name be withheld out of fear of retribution towards her family’s business.
“When [sheltering] is not 24/7, there isn’t an entrenchment,” said Janice. “There isn’t people becoming territorial over a public park.”
According to Janice, she and other members of Save Beacon Hill Park no longer feel safe using the park, due to a fear of threats, used needles, and hygiene concerns.
City Councillor Marianne Alto says she has witnessed a rise in stigma and hatred, especially online, towards those living on the streets. She largely attributes this to increased visibility — not increased numbers — of unhoused people during the past few months, and rising frustration from locals during the pandemic.
“People will lash out at the nearest possible target,” she said. “Unfortunately, that’s the person who’s living in what you consider to be ‘your’ park.”
Not all housed Victorians share Janice’s perspective — one signatory of the counter-petition, Bronwyn Guiton, has regularly used the park with their toddler throughout the pandemic.
“We peacefully co-existed with the people who are tenting in the park and I recognize that they too need a haven,” commented Guiton on the counter-petition.
To ensure the protection of the park’s sensitive ecosystems and culturally significant Indigenous burial grounds, the City of Victoria was granted an injunction in July to relocate anyone camped outside of designated areas of the park. The Martlet reported that residents of the park feel the designated locations are more visible, which they feared could make them more vulnerable to harassment, assault, and theft.
While some residents, including Smith, moved out of environmentally sensitive areas upon request prior to the injunction, bylaw officers are still enforcing relocations as needed.
Coming in from the cold
The path towards bringing unhoused Victorians off the streets will not be simple, said Alto, and will require collaboration with provincial and federal governments. BC Housing is currently working to turn recently purchased hotels into permanent supportive housing units, a project that is projected to take three to five years.
Until then, Alto is working on a proposal for a distributed model of organized temporary outdoor encampments, where smaller groups of unhoused Victorians would be located in parks around the city, ideally functioning as neighbourhoods. This concept is still in early development, and Alto plans to hold peer-facilitated conversations with current campers and figure out how to best make this plan work for everyone.
Beyond housing, Grant McKenzie, director of communications at Our Place — a shelter and resource centre for unhoused people — sees a need for further infrastructure to prevent individuals from falling into homelessness. This includes national programs to treat mental health and addiction, along with services to ensure low-income people can access healthcare and food.
“We simply exist because there’s giant cracks in our society, and we’re there to try and help the people that are falling through those cracks,” McKenzie said. “The biggest challenge that we face is that we have far too many people on the streets who have severe mental health issues that aren’t being addressed by our healthcare system and are too severe to be addressed by nonprofits such as Our Place.”
Gordon* is an unhoused resident of Beacon Hill Park who struggles with mental health challenges and severe pain after multiple operations. Five years ago, he met Elaine* at her weekly jam sessions, where they bonded over their love of music. Now, she regularly visits him in the park.
“There’s no way he should be here. He should have a home,” said Elaine, a former mental health support worker. In the time she’s known Gordon, Elaine says, he never used drugs — but since moving to Beacon Hill Park, he’s begun using to cope with his chronic pain.
Despite months of calling provincial offices and resource groups, Elaine has been unable to find him support.
“The system is really screwed,” she said. “Where do you get help?”
At the end of the day, everyone wants the same thing — for people to not have to camp in Beacon Hill Park, McKenzie says. In order to achieve that aim, he feels compassion and cooperation are essential.
“We have to be careful about lashing out to homeless people whose situations we don’t understand,” said McKenzie.
“But I do think we should be raising our voices high and letting the provincial government and the federal government know that in Canada, this isn’t acceptable.”
- Names have been changed due to a request for anonymity.