A longtime Saanich resident believes more can be done to tackle the homeless issue for the Gorge Tillicum neighbourhood after a recent scare with a homeless person in the Centennial Library branch.
Brent D’argis and his four-year-old son Lucas recently visited Centennial in the early afternoon. When Lucas excitedly entered the library ahead of Brent, he startled a sleeping adult male, sitting in a chair, who awoke with yells and screams.
“This fellow woke up and wanted to fight everyone in the library,” D’argis said. “The police came and made contact, told me he had mental health issues, and then the guy returned into the forest.”
Lucas was so scared, the trip to the library was abandoned.
The fact that the man walked into Cuthbert Holmes Park, behind Pearkes Recreation Centre, is of no surprise to D’argis. The 27-year-old single father grew up on Ker Avenue, which backs on to Pearkes and Cuthbert Holmes. D’argis also worked for four years in the operations department at Pearkes Rec Centre, dating back to his final year at Spectrum Community School.
“Back then I had to make hourly visits into the edge of Cuthbert Holmes Park and scare out the teenagers drinking and partying,” D’argis said. “I used to run into a lot of [homeless] campers, sometimes they’d be very aggressive.”
Over the past 20 years D’argis has witnessed all kinds of camping in Cuthbert Holmes, and knows dozens of hidden campsites.
A 20-minute tour alongside trails through the underbrush revealed a dozen vacant but former sites. Among the clues are clothing left behind, rope attached to trees for tents and tarps, and ashes from fires. One site had a stack of twigs and branches carefully organized and ready to light.
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t see any during the day, the fact is people pack up and leave in the morning,” he said.
It all points to the demand for the park, D’argis added, and he wonders if it would be better to have a shelter, or more permanent social housing, in the area.
On Monday, the provincial government committed $30 million to the Housing First Initiative partnership agreement – matching the CRD’s $30 million – to create new affordable housing projects for people in need throughout the region.
“Tent city is a perfect example of the need for more housing,” said Don McTavish, who oversees residential services and shelters with the Victoria Cool Aid Society. ”Every time people are moved out of tent city into a housing accommodation, more people seem to move into tent city, it doesn’t get any smaller.”
Not only is there a desire to spread the services for homeless people outside the downtown core, McTavish confirmed there is a desire from homeless people to stay away from downtown.
“People do want to get away from town, they want services spread out, whether they’re trying to get away from street life, or just don’t like it,” he said.
This year Saanich is stepping further into the affordable housing situation with Cool Aid’s Cottage Grove, a 45-unit development at Quadra and Tolmie that will house seniors who’ve experienced chronic homelessness. There’s also Cool Aid’s Olympic Vista housing on Carey Road. Yet there’s still no shelter or other permanent housing on the way in the Island’s biggest municipality.
The recent Point in Time homeless count for Greater Victoria hit 1,387, with hundreds falling outside the downtown core. Though an additional shelter isn’t necessarily what’s needed, putting one outside of the downtown core could be beneficial, McTavish said.
“Shelters are only short term. In the end you need housing. And really, the region’s shelter capacity should be enough if there was an adequate way to get people housed. We need bricks and mortar.”
For D’argis, who is on disability assistance right now and lives with his family, the fine line between being homeless and housed has never been more relevant.
“You can see how little you get on assistance, what are you going to buy, rent, or food? It’s sad. But we need a safe neighbourhood here.
“There’s always been campers here, since I was a kid. I expect the number of campers in Cuthbert will grow again. Police have to lock up their bikes and head through those trails, there’s too many paths to do it often,” he said.
For the most part, D’argis sympathizes with the campers, but is worried about the neighbourhood’s safety. He said it’s unfair to expect Saanich Police’s bike patrol to continuously root out the campers.