Saanich Council turned down a surprise motion by Mayor Richard Atwell to consider the former Emily Carr library as a potential housing site for occupants of the Regina Park tent city.
Atwell made the motion at Thursday night’s special meeting, an impromptu session he instigated as mayor two weeks ago so council could hear from members of the public about the encampment at Regina Park, which has now grown to a reported 77 tents.
The special meeting drew a divisive crowd. Many expressed concerns of safety and had little sympathy for the occupants living in Regina Park, claiming crime rates have risen, that people were invading cars and carports alike, and asked Saanich to enforce bylaws, which would effectively force out the occupants to find emergency shelter elsewhere. Others suggested dignity and sympathy, and called for either a solution through housing or to at least supply running water and temporary showers.
Members of the tent city also spoke, including Ryan Williams, who grew up in the area and has been living on the street off-and-on for a decade.
“Your kids are safe, you know,” he said. “If there’s someone crawling over your fence, come talk to one of us, it will be stopped right away, this is not the first tent city. I just want to say thank you for the help.”
The encampment started in early May as a roaming tent city with less than a dozen tents.
Thursday night also happened to be the fourth straight night of council meetings in Saanich, which held regular council session on Monday, a public hearing on Tuesday and an in-camera meeting with Saanich Police on Wednesday.
The session started with dozens of residents, some who are living at Regina Park, most from the nearby area, and others from within the Greater Victoria community, such as Khalela Bell, an outreach worker for people experiencing homelessness.
“This is a very difficult thing to do, it’s painful to watch,” Bell said. “I’ve heard stories from people coming from a welfare office to my office saying, it was suggested I go buy a tent.”
Bell said it’s a matter of survival.
“People are pairing up for survival so they’re things don’t get stolen or taken by bylaw, we have women sleeping alone in parks, it creates a situation where homelessness creates a dangerous environment.
“People from the public are saying, ‘Really, a tent city,’ and I’m here to say yes, a tent city. We are at that point. People need to be banding together forming community and taking care of each other.”
Ashley Mollison, from the Alliance Against Displacement, said tent cities can be a place for transformation, a place where some people find their first chance to go to a medical office, or to look for a job, as the community of a tent city affords people a chance to leave behind their belongings without worry of theft.
After two hours of speakers, Atwell made a pair of motions. Council, which was absent of Vicki Sanders, Judy Brownoff and Dean Murdock, voted in favour to have Saanich write a letter to B.C. Housing about working to find a solution for the residents of Regina Park. Atwell’s second motion, however, was contested, and lost 4-2 to Couns. Colin Plant, Fred Haynes, Leif Wergeland and Susan Brice, with Karen Harper in support.
“We are not far enough along in the conversation to know exactly what [occupants of Regina Park] want,” said Coun. Fred Haynes. “Do they want housing in the old Emily Carr, because I’m not sure that’s what they want.”
Atwell had to interrupt the speakers early on Thursday as members of the gallery clapped in support of area resident Matt Sasaki’s comments. Sasaki urged council “to deal with this right away” and enforce bylaws, which would force the occupants to “move on or abide,” which, are technically the same thing, as the District’s vacate notice on site says people with no other shelter may sleep in the park from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. only but must then remove their belongings.
Coun. Colin Plant noted the chambers emptied from being completely full to just three gallery members when Atwell’s
motions were debated amongst council.
“I don’t know why people left,” Plant said. “Maybe they were tired. Maybe they didn’t want to watch council got through the mechanics of motions, or maybe they didn’t know there would be motions [because no motions were on the agenda].
“When you hear from the residents, you hear how important it is that we find a solution as soon as possible,” Plant added.
Haynes was among those who criticized Atwell for not alerting council that he would bring up the former Emily Carr site, a property Saanich owns at 3500 Blanshard across from Uptown mall, as a potential site to house people experiencing homelessness.
“Council chambers is the place where council debates issues, and I can’t think of a more pressing issue to debate than a homeless camp in Saanich,” Atwell said. “It’s been there two months now and it’s about time council take a leadership role to identify housing. I don’t think this property should be left out of the mix.”
Haynes admitted he was about to vote in favour of researching the former Emily Carr site as a housing option but changed his mind.
“There is no supported history that council responds well on proposals about land assets with little or no research ahead of time,” Haynes said.
Just last week, Saanich Council heard a report from staff to house Saanich staff at the Emily Carr site so the municipal hall can undergo renovations.