A homeless camp near a major intersection is gone following a cleanup Friday, but several questions about the incident and its larger implications remain.
Members of the Saanich Police Department and provincial highways crews arrived near the intersection of Burnside Road and Highway 1 Friday afternoon, where a couple of homeless individuals had been camping for a couple of weeks.
The couple, a woman in her mid-20s and a man in his late-20s or early 30s, had been moving around the area for several months and had arrived at that location just before Christmas after work on the nearby McKenzie interchange had forced them to abandon their previous location.
It is not clear why or who asked the couple to leave the location. Questions about the costs of the cleanup, who will bear it and any possible consequences for the couple also remain unanswered. Questions from the Saanich News to police officers attending the scene were referred to acting Sgt. Jereme Leslie, who did not directly respond to those questions. He confirmed that police are aware of the individuals.
“I won’t speak to anything case specific to ensure people retain their privacy,” he said. “I can tell you we continue to build our relationships with all people who are experiencing homelessness. We provide them information to ensure they know of the various community resources available, monitor their set of circumstances and communicate with various stakeholders about them.”
Sonia Lowe, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, said in a statement late last year that the ministry was aware of the encampment. “Safety is the ministry’s top priority and, as such, staff are working with local police to address the matter for both the safety of those in the encampment and the travelling public,” she said.
As for the individuals themselves, it is not clear where they will now reside.
Clean up of the site lasted well into the afternoon and yielded a dump truck full of debris and garbage. This collection included among other items a shopping cart, several tarps and discarded bike parts. This said, a collection of garbage visible farther down from the couple’s campsite remained untouched.
Friday’s development comes during an intensifying public debate about the causes, contemporary nature and possible remedies for homelessness in Saanich generally and the Gorge-Tillicum neighbourhood specifically.
One seismograph of this debate is the Facebook page of the Gorge-Tillicum Community Association, whose feed features several stories about local, regional and international efforts to deal with homelessness following the Dec. 28 death of 58-year-old Dave Armitage.
A popular presence in the community known as Mayor Dave, Armitage died after years of living in and around Cuthbert Holmes Park.
Armitage – who left behind a daughter – had been suffering from schizophrenia and relied on support from his immediate family and the community.
Rob Wickson, president of the Gorge-Tillicum Community Association, sees Armitage’s death as another reason for Saanich to get serious about this issue.
“I am disappointed that it has to come to a mass expensive cleanup,” he said. “How many resources had to be used for one camp cleanup? Can we not find a better way with a little forethought. Why is Saanich not asking the neighbourhoods for more input?”
Notably, Wickson pointed fingers at Saanich’s highest political leadership.
“In Victoria, the mayor has clearly taken on this file and is working with various partners to find solutions,” he said. “What is going on with the leadership in Saanich? We thank those that have helped take care of this camp, but we wonder about the details. What is going to happen next time?”
Responding to similar critiques earlier, a spokesperson for the district said they aware of the challenges regarding affordable housing and are taking steps to increase options in the district, pointing to various joined initiatives with regional, provincial and federal partners, including the Cottage Grove project, a development said to serve seniors and other individuals who have experienced homelessness, or at risk for homelessness, scheduled to be completed later this year.