From the Trans Canada highway, it’s easy to forget what’s hidden behind the dense perimeter of Cuthbert Holmes Park.
With thick groves of trees and heavy branches, there are dozens of off-the-trail nooks for campers to hide unnoticed in its forest. Which is why it was so shocking for passersby to see campers living in the open last summer, flagrantly abusing the park’s sensitive natural environment.
Campers relished what seemed like a six-month summer in Cuthbert Holmes. With no one holding them accountable, the tenting population of the park grew to the dozens.
One of the key tipping points for longtime park advocate Dorothy Chambers, who petitioned Saanich about the matter, was the numerous open fire pits.
“There was quite a few bonfires in the middle of drought season, people were burning piles of palettes,” Chambers said.
Cuthbert sits on an absolutely crucial portion of the Colquitz River, a federally recognized migratory bird sanctuary, Chambers said.
“It’s a salmon spawning area, it’s an estuary and the traditional nesting area for a diverse variety of waterfowl, and the trees are the nesting area for herons, hawks and more.”
Saanich Police Sgt. Andy Stuart estimates that the number of sites has fluctuated between 10 and 15. Some sites would host as many as five tents. By October, Chambers was trying to educate the campers about the park’s unique ecosystem. Saanich Police collaborated with Saanich Parks to inform the campers and asked them to clean up before a parks team cleaned up the remaining camps by early November, Stuart said.
“Our role with homeless or campers is to support people and help them to find housing and services, whether it’s drug and alcohol outreach, or whatever the appropriate service,” Stuart said.
That said, he agreed with Chambers the park was out of control.
Chambers called it the worst case of abuse and neglect she has seen in her 26 years as a friend of Cuthbert Holmes.
“Crime was up in the neighbourhood, and when I went through there, one site had a full-size folding table loaded with electrical and kitchen appliances like it was for sale or trade,” Chambers said. “Another site was cooking on a stainless-steel barbecue, and there was a spot with dozens of dismantled bikes and parts.”
The campers were bold, with signs telling passersby to “leave my stuff alone,” and “stay the f*** out.”
By the end of the summer the small population had grown exponentially until the police and Saanich Parks shut it down.
For Julian Anderson, it was a challenging situation.
He’s spent nearly a decade leading work party removals of invasive species in Cuthbert Holmes, including Saanich’s Pulling Together program. Yet he has sympathy for the homeless, and was hesitant to see them forced out of the natural areas park.
“I don’t want to just kick homeless out without a solution, that’s just displacing the problem,” Anderson said. “You can see how a regional strategy is needed, perhaps by following Victoria’s lead and amending the bylaw to prohibit camping in natural areas parks.”
Campers cut trees and branches down in Cuthbert Holmes and also caused soil compaction, which goes against the goal of preserving the park’s pristine nature, Anderson said. It wouldn’t surprise him if there’s an upswing in park campers returning to Cuthbert Holmes and other parks now that the weather is warming up.
There’s also the impending breakup of Victoria’s tent city, which is home to former Cuthbert Holmes campers.
One-time Saanichite and former Victoria Coun. Shellie Gudgeon grew up nearby, went to Spectrum Community School, and spent many an hour in Cuthbert Holmes Park. She took a walk through the park with Saanich Coun. Colin Plant last month as the two discussed affordable housing issues and uncovered at least one remaining tent, hidden deep in the brush.
Gudgeon’s concern with tent cities is the crime that can occur. There’s worry that Victoria’s tent city could lead to a similar situation as The Jungle in Seattle, where two of the encampment’s residents were shot and killed this year in a botched robbery for drugs and money. Ironically, The Jungle is in a neighbourhood known as Beacon Hill.
Despite housing the predecessor to a tent city in 2015, Saanich is rarely included in the region’s homelessness conversation.
The Native Friendship Centre in the Gorge-Tillicum neighbourhood is the only facility to open as a shelter in Saanich and that’s only on provincially mandated extreme weather days.
There have always been tales of car-bound, or couch-bound people in Saanich, the type of homelessness you don’t see. It was revealed that campers had long hid in the former forest of Watkins Way, which was learned when the forest was recently felled.
A report from the Gorge Tillicum Resident Association’s AGM on Thursday noted campers in Cuthbert Holmes, Gorge Park, Mount Douglas Park, Mount Tolmie Park, on the beaches from Cadboro Bay to Cordova Bay, along the Galloping Goose and Lochside trails, at the Cedar Hill Golf Course, and on the elevated boulevard between Blanshard Street, Saanich Road and Vernon Avenue, and even along the overpasses and underpasses of McKenzie and Highway 17 and McKenzie and the Trans Canada Highways. That doesn’t include homeless taking shelter in business doorways, or other lands such as Panama Flats.
Mikko Lindros camped in Cuthbert Holmes for six months in 2015. He has an apartment on the border of Victoria now, and a job as a carpenter. But he spent most of the last eight years homeless.
It was off and on, he said.
“I did all the shelters, Salvation Army, Rock Bay, all of it. I managed to get back on my feet, but it’s amazing how fast you can be down and out and homeless.”
Getting back on your feet is even harder, he said.
“With all the lineups and bureaucracy you face, the system is harsh.”
Last year wasn’t the first time he had lived at Cuthbert Holmes. He stayed there three years ago. Campers there can take advantage of the facilities at Pearkes Rec Centre and Tillicum Centre by “bird bathing” in the washroom.
During his time at Cuthbert, Lindros said he kept to himself mostly, but knows of campers from Cuthbert in 2015 who are at Victoria’s tent city. He also knows of some that credit the Saanich Police for finding them a bed.
“I never went to tent city,” he said. “It is good what they are doing, moving them in to places [like My Place, Mount Edward].”
Ever since the fall, the Saanich Police bike patrols have had a renewed presence in Cuthbert Holmes.
Stuart says they’ll come through at least once to twice a week, and are better educated about the park’s sensitive ecological system.