Tent city in Saanich’s Regina Park shuts down

Any remaining residents of the homeless camp in Regina Park plan to hold a rally Friday, when organizers expect residents to leave the camp. But it is not clear yet how police will react to this timeline.

“We are having a rally on Friday at 5 p.m. to celebrate the camp, protest the court ruling displacement, and vow to continue to fight against the normalization of homelessness in B.C.,” said Ashley Mollison of the Alliance Against Displacement.

She made these comments early Wednesday afternoon, hours after members of the Saanich Police Department and Saanich municipal crews had descended upon the camp to oversee enforcement of a court order issued last Friday that asked camp residents — more than 100 at one stage — to depart the site by Sept. 11, 7 p.m.

While that deadline came and went without incident, police and crews arrived early Wednesday morning to erect a fence and establish a 24-7 police presence to oversee the departure of the camp residents and remediation efforts.

As of Wednesday afternoon, fencing had closed off the camp’s two main entry points to unauthorized persons. As Saanich police officers were standing watch at the entry points off Regina Avenue and near the intersection of Harriet Road and Battleford Avenue, their colleagues inside the camp were attending to residents and overseeing efforts by residents to pack up their tents and belongings.

It is not clear yet where they will go. As of Wednesday afternoon, the number of tents on site had noticeably declined when compared to the days between Friday’s ruling and Tuesday’s deadline. Some residents have been able to find housing, be it through official or unofficial channels. A large group may also establish another camp elsewhere.

Camp leader Chrissy Brett said an earlier interview that this camp could appear in Oak Bay or in Central Saanich among other communities, though she’s unsure.

The pending departure of the camp will likely be a relief for many residents living in the area, as police recorded a higher number of calls for service and property crime in the area when compared to the same period last year.

Several businesses in the area also hired additional security. If social media postings coupled with public and anonymous comments to various media outlets including the Saanich News offer any measure, relations between the camp residents and the neighbourhood were tetchy at best and hostile at worst, with several harsh comments aimed personally at Brett, the camp’s public face. Camp residents also suffered — unfairly in large parts — under a general suspicion of being criminals.

Police at one stage had to dispel the rumour that the suspect in a sexual assault case near the camp was a camp resident. (He wasn’t and police later arrested a person with no ties to the camp).

But the camp and its cause also generated material and moral support from neighbours from far and near the site and Victoria Drain Services quickly shut down an online stream of one of its surveillance cameras directed at the camp following charges of voyeurism and privacy violations. Camp residents would also say that they found an ear among parts of the Saanich police and fire departments, despite an incident that led to the temporary arrest of Brett. (She later reconciled with the officer, who had arrested her).

The camp also drew regional and provincial attention as it co-existed with camps in Nanaimo and Maple Ridge, with their respective leadership supporting each other during their various court dealings. Camp leaders also spoke of the camp as an emerging urban reserve for First Nations in drawing attention to the vulnerabilities of First Nations when it comes homelessness.

So what will be the legacy of the camp? Saanich officials have promised that residents would be able to return to the site following remediation during day hours, while prohibiting them from camping overnight. That will likely strike many, if not most as a poor substitute, and camp advocates have argued that the court ruling against them amounts to a ‘death sentence,’ a hyperbolic, but not necessarily inaccurate statement against the backdrop of public health statistics.

In meantime, many residents and members of the public will wait to see whether municipal and provincial authorities will follow through on promises to provide supportive housing. The wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly, and the closure of the camp almost exactly a month before the Oct. 20 municipal election ensures that the issue will not be as visible.

This said, provincial officials referenced it — albeit indirectly — during the current UBCM conference.

“Tent cities should never be the new normal,” said Selina Robinson, minister of municipal affairs and housing. “This is about years of neglect of a housing crisis that has taken place over a number of years and our government’s going to be swift to address a crisis that’s been going on unchecked for a number of years.”

wolfgang.depner@saanichnews.com

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