Homeless camp springs up along highway offramp in Saanich

Gorge-Tillicum Community Association calls for district to hire social planner to deal with issues surrounding homelessness

A homeless campsite has sprung up on the Burnside Road offramp from the Trans-Canada Highway.

A homeless campsite has sprung up on the Burnside Road offramp from the Trans-Canada Highway.

The death of a man in the Gorge Park has renewed the focus on Saanich’s transient population, a focus now shifting towards a makeshift campsite near Burnside Road.

The public still knows little about the man, whom police found deceased Wednesday morning in a wooden area inside Gorge Park near the intersection of Tillicum Road and Gorge Road.

Police ruled out foul play and have turned over the file to the Coroners Service, whose spokesperson Barbara McLintock said Thursday her office could not release the man’s name or cause of death at the moment.

Many area residents simply knew him as “Dave,” according to a Facebook post on the Saanich News website.

“Dave frequented Gorge Plaza but didn’t panhandle and never asked for anything,” the post reads. “He liked conversation and, if you were so inclined to give him something he could use or sell, he was always thankful. We are sorry his life ended this way.”

For Rob Wickson, president of the Gorge-Tillicum Community Association, the man’s death points towards the issues that the association wants the district to address by hiring a social planner who would deal directly with issues around homelessness.

“We do not know anything about who died,” said Wickson. “We do know that campers are almost always in that park, especially along the ridge by the Gorge-Tillicum intersection as it is quite bushy. Some folks who gather there on a regular basis live nearby, but there are a couple who sleep in the park.”

When the association cleans the park of invasive species, Wickson said he spends a lot of time cleaning up abandoned camping sites. The last spring cleanup yielded six large bags of garbage, he said. “We find needles and lots of other crap, including discarded clothes and sleeping gear,” he said.

A veritable heap of multi-coloured tarps, crooked metal poles, wet bags and items of every variety, including dozens of bicycle seats, are now piling up on a piece property along the Burnside Road offramp from Highway 1.

Yet what might look like an illegal trash dump to drivers turning off the highway is home for a young woman in early-to-mid-20s, who scrambled out of the tent buried underneath the tarps and poles when the Saanich News visited the site.

Wearing blue jeans, brown hiking boots and a hoodie against the rain, one of her first tasks was to dump the accumulating rain water threatening to weigh down one of the tarps covering the tent that she was sharing with her boyfriend and their dog.

Sometimes reluctant, but never unfriendly, the woman did not want to share her name nor that of her partner.

She also did not want to share – at least for the record – details about her life and the various events that led her to her current place. Yet what emerged from the conversation was a thoughtful person, who rejected overt expressions of sympathy, because such sentiments threaten to obscure reality.

Homeless people, she insisted, are full-rounded individuals and it is precisely the refusal of the public to recognize them as such that forces them into the open.

She and her boyfriend have not been at their current location for very long. Work on the McKenzie interchange forced them to abandon their old location closer to McKenzie Avenue. In fact, they have moved around the immediate area quite a bit over the last few months.

Yet their transient nature has not necessarily isolated them. They have personal friends in the area and strangers will sometimes drop off supplies.

Passing children accompanied by their parents have even played with their dog, which has received the odd treat from people whom they meet along nearby trails. And as the young woman talks, she frequently expresses embarrassment about the unkept appearance of the site, which she and her boyfriend share with a couple of other people. In fact, she bitterly complains about a nearby garbage dump and frantically picks up small pieces of garbage in between talking and puffing on her cigarette.

She and her boyfriend are now on a waiting list for permanent housing after local police had checked on them, but the tone in her voice suggests that they might be out there, somewhere, for a while.


Province promises to take action

The provincial government promises to work with local police and housing authorities to relocate those living in an encampment near Highway 1 and Burnside Road in Saanich

“We are aware of a small encampment near Highway 1 and Burnside Road in Saanich,” Sonia Lowe, public affairs officer with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, said in an email. “Safety is the ministry’s top priority and, as such, staff are working with local police to address the matter for both the safety of those in the encampment and the travelling public,” it read.

The encampment sprung up almost two weeks ago and the Saanich News can confirm the presence of at least two individuals who live there in a tent sheltered by tarps strung across poles.

Both individuals — a young woman and her boyfriend — have been living in the area for several months and are on a waiting list for permanent housing after local police had checked on them.

Rob Wickson, president of the Gorge-Tillicum Community Association,  said earlier that he would like to see the District of Saanich take a more active role in dealing with issues around homelessness in light of the encampment on provincial property and the recent death of man in a wooden area near Tillicum and Gorge Road frequented by homeless individuals.

“Even though council feels that the (Capital Regional District) is the body to take of the homelessness and housing issues, these things are still being ignored by those with control of the purse strings and policy direction,” he said.

District of Saanich spokesperson Kelsie McLeod said Saanich is aware of the housing challenges and taking steps to increase the supply of affordable housing.

“Saanich is proud to be partnering with the governments of Canada and B.C., the Capital Regional District and the City of Victoria to create more affordable rental housing options for those in need,” she said.

Seniors and other individuals who have experienced homelessness, or are at risk for homelessness, will have increased options for affordable rental housing in 2017, when Cottage Grove, currently under construction, opens at 3207 Quadra St. It will provide 45 safe and comfortable homes for at-risk individuals including seniors, and help meet the need for affordable housing in the community, she said. The building will also offer residents  a variety of support services such as medication monitoring and life skills programs. Residents will also be connected to mental health and addictions services. The central location along the Quadra Street Corridor will allow for easy access to public transportation and community services, she added.