A tent in the Centennial Square encampment caught fire in June. City staff ordered the relocation of campers on Aug. 28. (@busdriverlife/Twitter)

Spreading out Centennial Square homeless can cause more problems: advocate

Victoria mayor says long-term solutions are needed for vulnerable population

Caution tape, wire fencing and patches of dead grass were all that remained in Centennial Square Tuesday morning after dozens of unhoused people were removed from the area the night before.

The move comes after Victoria police reported a drug trafficking bust, several assaults and a few pellet gun shootings – some of which damaged windows in the adjacent City Hall building.

On Friday, the City of Victoria’s director of parks, recreation and facilities issued an order to close parks and open spaces with “hazardous conditions.”

“We recognize every person has the right to shelter and that COVID-19 has exacerbated the challenges faced by vulnerable populations,” said city staffer Sheldon Johnson in an emailed statement.

“However, Centennial Square has become entrenched with a criminal element that demands greater action to protect the public, businesses and those seeking shelter.”

READ ALSO: Victoria orders Centennial Square homeless campers to relocate by Tuesday

Kaylene Johnstone was at the square Thursday morning, helping the camp’s final resident pack up his belongings. Pillows, sheets and assorted items were packed in cardboard boxes stacked neatly near City Hall. A one-person mattress lay folded on the ground.

Johnstone, a volunteer with Lived and Living Experiences of Homelessness (LEON), insists the relocation is a detriment to people who had been calling the square home. When vulnerable populations are spread out, it’s more difficult to provide them with the resources they need, she explained.

Kaylene Johnstone, a volunteer advocate for Victoria’s homeless, stands near the now-empty Centennial Square. As fall looms, Johnstone is concerned for the future of people who are homeless in Victoria. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)

“Just with so many spread out encampments, it’s hard to get supplies to all those different places,” she said. “It was the same situation on Pandora [Avenue], everyone was kind of in one location, they were close to resources. It was much easier to bring them supplies and also create community.”

Moving, Johnstone said, simply uproots those who are homeless, and often separates them not only from community supports, but from family and friends within their encampment. That can be a setback for someone trying to sort out their life.

But the order to relocate came after an undercover Victoria police investigation in Centennial Square led to drug trafficking charges against 17 people. Police, posing as customers, were able to purchase meth, cocaine, psilocybin and fentanyl from several tents in the square.

That led city staff – without direction from Victoria city council – to order the closure in an effort to break up any additional concentration of criminal activity.

Mayor Lisa Helps said she learned the following day that at least four people had moved from the square to the Salvation Army’s indoor sheltering – a small but hopeful shift in the right direction.

READ ALSO: Undercover Victoria drug trafficking investigation leaves 17 people facing 18 charges

“Four people moving inside is a tiny step, but a good step,” she said. In April, Victoria council decided that no one who was homeless would be asked to take down their tents during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds were moved to indoor shelters, but others set up tents across the city – including at Beacon Hill Park, Topaz Park and Centennial Square.

Helps speculated that most of those who left Centennial Square on Monday went to Central Park, near Crystal Pool. With 24-hour security, the move might help split up criminal activity, but it doesn’t solve any long-term problems, she mused.

“The bottom line is, moving people from park to park to park doesn’t help anyone,” she said. “The actual solution is long-term supportive housing, purpose-built supportive housing.”

On Aug. 27 BC Housing announced the purchase of two downtown Victoria lots for the creation of 50 permanent supportive housing units.

Helps is hopeful that more housing may be coming down the pipeline.

“We continue working with BC Housing,” she said. “Winter is coming and I don’t want people spread out across city parks. It’s causing a lot of tension.”

READ ALSO: Province buys downtown Victoria lots for supportive housing


Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email: nina.grossman@blackpress.ca. Follow us on Instagram.
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