British Columbia's youth advocate is urging the provincial government to remove teens from a homeless encampment in downtown Victoria due to concerns about sexual coercion and drug abuse.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond and her staff have been monitoring the homeless tent city on the grounds of the Victoria courthouse since it emerged in October. But she's raising new concerns, given developments in an ongoing court case that will mean the fate of the encampment won't be dealt with until at least September.
"There's a sense of permanence that has developed. It leaves me with very little other than a sick feeling," she said in an interview on Tuesday, adding that it's time for the provincial government to act. "They need to get the youth out of there."
The camp has raised concerns from neighbourhood residents and the B.C. government, which owns the courthouse grounds and has attempted to remove people who are staying there. However, a judge rejected the province's request for an interim injunction last month. The next hearing in the case is set for Sept. 7. The province is now installing running water and a flushing toilet at the settlement, which is home to between 70 and 90 people.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond said about 10 to 13 teens are among the residents of the tent city, but she believes the numbers could easily spike to as many as 25.
"Showers and toilets? It has now become a home," she said. "It is an environment in which there is rampant, open drug use and an environment which is not safe."
Ms. Turpel-Lafond said the tent city is also a threat to teens across the region. "Anybody's 14-year-old can gravitate down there and be welcomed with open arms into that tent city. It poses a significant public-safety risk," she said.
The provincial representative for children and youth, who has visited the camp, said young people are being exposed to "very potent, dangerous" street drugs, and an environment in which medical issues are untreated.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond said she fears young people may be being victimized by unwanted, non-consensual sex they are unable to rebuff because of intoxication.
She did not have any numbers, "but I am aware that it is occurring," she said.
"I am of the view that all sorts of harms and absence of safety are going on on a daily basis, but it's somewhat futile to report things. When you [normalize] a tent-city environment with open, active drug use, this is what happens," she said.
A Victoria Police Department spokesman said on Tuesday that officers are monitoring the situation. "The temporary encampment on the grounds of the provincial courthouse is not a suitable housing option for youth," Constable Matt Rutherford said in a statement.
"VicPD is aware that youth have used the grounds as a sheltering option. In those cases, VicPD continues to work collaboratively with the Ministry of Children and Family Development to intervene in the interest of youth safety and well-being."
The Ministry of Children and Family Development confirmed it is monitoring the situation at the camp. In a statement responding to questions from The Globe and Mail, Minister Stephanie Cadieux said her preferred option was to dismantle the tent city, but the courts have not granted an injunction to do so.
"The ministry continues to view [the] tent city as a high-risk environment and no place for youth. Social workers visit every day, seven days a week to monitor and work with any youth who might show up in order to facilitate and encourage their return to appropriate accommodations – whether that means a family home, foster care, youth shelter or other safe, appropriate arrangement," the minister said in the statement.
She noted that the ministry cannot "restrain or forcibly remove any youth from a location, even if that location is a tent city."
Richard Stanwick, the chief medical health officer for Vancouver Island, said his staff are managing health issues in the camp.
"While the tent city is unsightly, it isn't unsanitary at this point," he said in an interview.
Dr. Stanwick disputed Ms. Turpel-Lafond's view that a number of youth are in the settlement, saying only one to three have been around. "It doesn't seem particularly attractive as a place to harbour youth at this point in time," he said. "That could change. One of the aspects of this camp is how fluid the situation is and how rapidly it can change."
He said his team has provided hand sanitizer and bleach to help sterilize the water supply, and has worked with the tent-community residents on issues around food safety. Dr. Stanwick said there are concerns about food- or water-borne illnesses.
There has been one fatal drug overdose at the site, involving a male in his 30s. A coroner's report is not yet available, so there is no final ruling on the drug involved, he said.
Dr. Stanwick said he did not have any final figures on the number of overdoses on the site, though he said he's aware that ambulances had transported people to hospital and at least four residents have been treated at the tent community.