Just hours after the cancellation of an extreme weather response, City of Victoria bylaw officers began to confiscate tents and blankets from an unhoused community in Stadacona Park on Pandora Avenue.
Trent Smith, who describes himself as a disabled person who is homeless, said he was in the park at 7:30 a.m. on Feb. 4 when bylaw officers arrived with officers from the Victoria Police Department and began breaking down unoccupied tents.
“There was a tent with nobody in it and they took that right away and they took half of another guy’s stuff, and left him with whatever,” he said. “They ended up taking a truck load full from one of the campers.”
Smith said he didn’t ask the police and bylaw officers why they were removing the belongings from the park, but added that he was disappointed to see it because a extreme weather response (EWR) was issued by the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness for Feb. 3 and only cancelled early in the morning of Feb. 4.
According to the EWR program framework, a community representative, like the coalition, can issue an extreme weather response to enable more beds at shelters to open up in the event of extreme weather like the high winds Greater Victoria saw Feb. 3.
“Bylaw services were out here a quarter after seven this morning (Feb.4), so I just feel that when there is an emergency weather protocol, people shouldn’t be bothered first thing in the morning,” Smith said.
Smith has been unhoused going on a little over two years, and said the removal and impounding of unhoused people’s belongings is something he has seen often and even experienced himself.
“They go through all your stuff and that is just an invasion on itself, and then they decide what you’re going to keep and what you’re not going to keep,” Smith said. “Then they keep it until you come and get it, unless they give you an order that you have to have a third party to come get your stuff.”
Smith uses a cot due to his medical needs and said it was impounded a few weeks ago and he wasn’t able to get it back for four days, despite the bylaw stating that objects impounded must be “made available to be claimed by a person entitled to its possession … within six hours of it being removed, seized or impounded.”
Colleen Mycroft, manager of city communications for the mayor and city manager’s office, said bylaw officers will tag unoccupied items and then return to the site and impound items if they remain.
“If they are working with someone to help clean up and there were blankets that had biohazards on them, they would discard them if they were a safety issue,” Mycroft said. “They wouldn’t just discard things without speaking to the individual and if the structure was impounded, if there were unsafe belongings or something that was moldy or beyond salvagable, then they would do that.”
The bylaw also states that things impounded can be sold if not picked up within 30 days and the director of parks deems it to have market value, but Mycroft said she has not heard of that happening.
Smith said taking things from the disabled is common, and he’s seen bylaw services remove food and cooking equipment.
“I’ve seen all sorts of things over the last year or two that I have been here, everything from taking stuff from a one-legged man in a wheelchair,” he said.
Mycroft said that during extreme weather situations, ideally there would be no one sheltering in tents, but would be in the city’s warming centers.
However, for a myriad of reasons, Smith said there are a lot of unhoused people who like himself, tend to separate themselves from the shelters, even during rough weather.
His main reason for avoiding shelters is because he struggles being around heavy drug users, which he said is the case with many of his fellow campers.
The Parks Regulation Bylaw states “a homeless person muct not place in a park a structure…except between the hours of 7:00 o’clock p.m. of one say and 7:00 o’clock a.m. of the next day.” Therefore, bylaw officers will start removing camps in the morning.
“Our bylaw staff are out there helping folks move along and comply with the bylaw, but they also know the folks who are sheltering and they’re there to work with them and help them pack up, and do that with the utmost respect and compassion that they can,” Mycroft said.
Niki Ottosen, who runs a community organization called the Back Pack Project that delivers mutual aid and humanitarian aid to people who are unhoused, said she has been keeping track of when extreme weather responses are put into place and monitoring if bylaw officers are confiscating belongings. She said the enforcement of removing tents is due to an April 2021 agreement the province made with Victoria to end encampments.
“They are trying to break up those encampments and how they do that is by constantly taking people’s tents and blankets and food and water and clothing, until they push them to the outskirts of town or get them to move,” Ottosen said.
Smith said the removal of personal belongings is a barrier to progress for many, including himself.
“We spend most of our time getting our things from bylaw and the police and it makes it really hard to have a mental state where you need to find a home,” Smith said. “Whether they are taking your stuff or not, you’re seeing them take other people’s things and you realize you could be next. It’s a big picture and we need to change things, fast.”