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British Columbia Short-term shelter opens to house ‘tent city’ homeless in Victoria

Victoria Police look for a person of interest from the homeless camp in Victoria, B.C., Dec. 4, 2015.

Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

An emergency shelter set to open next week is expected to temporarily house up to 40 homeless people currently living at a growing "tent city" encampment in Victoria.

However, that would leave more than 60 others at the courthouse site, which neither city nor province are in any hurry to clear despite some complaints from nearby residents.

The shelter's opening, at 1240 Yates St., is in response to a growing homeless encampment that in the past few days has seen a stabbing and a fatal overdose. The city will lease the vacant building to BC Housing and Our Place, a Victoria-based community centre which will operate it around the clock and provide three meals a day through to the end of April.

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Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps called the short-term shelter a "great first step" to address the situation.

"I can guarantee that we'll have no problem filling up those 40 spaces," Ms. Helps said in an interview on Tuesday. "The question is: What does the province plan to do with the other … people who will still have nowhere to go?"

Rich Coleman, the Minister Responsible for Housing, was not available for an interview Tuesday. An e-mail from his office said that the province is providing $425,000 in funding for the shelter, and that outreach workers are at the camp every day.

"We are hoping that once they get into a shelter, these people will be in a better position to stabilize their situation," the e-mail stated. "That means not only assessing any health needs but also starting the process of moving towards more stable, permanent housing."

The encampment began with a few people in August and has grown to more than 100 campers today. Neighbours say this has resulted in an increase in crime, though police say there are no statistics to back up that claim.

In October, a B.C. Supreme Court justice ruled that homeless people are allowed to erect temporary shelters and camp in public spaces from 7 p.m. to 9 a.m., so long as such structures are dismantled in the morning. However, the courthouse encampment is located on Crown land, making it exempt from city bylaws.

Both Ms. Helps and Mr. Coleman say there is no desire to evict the campers.

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"If you move people from there, where do they go? They go back to the small neighbourhood parks," Ms. Helps said. "The containment is in some cases easier to manage; there is one place where most people are sleeping. Moving people along doesn't help at all."

The mayor said she hopes to ultimately see more permanent supportive housing units – a goal with some promise following a proposal from the Capital Regional Hospital District to borrow up to $30-million for just such a reason.

"The province has not publicly announced or committed, but softly indicated … that they're looking to potentially match that $30-million," Ms. Helps said. "That would help us build new housing. It's not a done deal, but I'm hoping the province can come to the table with that money in the next four months."

Victoria Police Constable Matt Rutherford said police are getting involved with the courthouse encampment only when there is an element of criminality – such as a stabbing on Christmas Eve and a fatal, fentanyl-suspected overdose on Boxing Day.

"We're making patrols in the area and if there are reports of incidents, we'll attend, but the actual removal of the campers is up to the province to decide," he said. "We will work with the province upon that decision."

A public meeting will be held at the shelter on Wednesday evening. Representatives from the city, BC Housing and Our Place will be present.

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