A controversial tent city for the homeless not far from the B.C. Legislature in Victoria has been invaded by street gangs and become unsafe for many occupants and service providers – and challenging for police, says the city's acting police chief.
Chief Del Manak of the Victoria Police Department outlined the unruly situation at a special meeting of Victoria City Council on Friday, and he called for extra money to bolster the police response to the situation, which has been brewing since last fall.
"There is a criminal element on-site. There are street gang members that are living on-site. There's lots of threats of intimidation and violence," Chief Manak said. "There is drug trafficking that is occurring on-site. And of course, when Vic PD is on scene, we are dealing with it as best as we can, but we are not there on a full-time basis, which proves to be a challenge for us."
Chief Manak noted that 70 to 80 of the 120 residents in the tent city are actually homeless. He did not go into detail on who the others are. Eighty per cent of the people living in the community, which emerged last year, are substance abusers or suffering from addiction issues.
Asked to elaborate on the nature of the "street gang members," a police spokesperson said Sunday that more time would be needed to provide additional details. The chief said there are "weapons" at the site, but he did not discuss it further.
Police have already said that calls for officers are up 46 per cent in and around the tent city from last year. The chief noted that on one occasion, an IV drug user was injecting himself on school property as parents were picking up their kids.
"The surrounding community doesn't feel safe. We see that. Their concerns are legitimate," Chief Manak said. "This is a very unique situation. It's extraordinary."
City council received a request for up to $113,000 to cover a four-month effort to deploy two officers around tent city, on the lawn of the downtown Victoria courthouse. The chief said there might be a need to scale the police response up or down. He also said he was seeking support from the province to add officers stationed at the site.
Councillors and the mayor swiftly agreed to the request after hearing the report from the police chief.
Mayor Lisa Helps said it is clear that some people in the tent city, and in the neighbourhood, don't feel safe. She said police and the the fire department, who have been monitoring the situation, do not have the option of saying they cannot respond to community calls.
"I don't think the city can say, in this instance, 'Sorry. It's not our problem.'"
In an interview on Sunday, Ms. Helps put the impact of the tent city in a larger context. "It's absolutely a concern, but it's one tiny corner of downtown," she said, noting that it covers just half a city block.
Ms. Helps said the tent city represents an "intense" situation, but the area is safer now with the enhanced police patrols.
The goal, she said, is to shut down the tent city and get housing for its occupants.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the B.C. Representative for Children and Youth, said last week she was concerned about the safety of at least 10 to 13 teens her office has determined are in the tent city.
Chief Manak said service providers have had trouble interacting with the tent city to manage residents' needs. Last week, residents asked such a responder to leave. "There were insults hurled their way. They didn't feel safe. It's very hard for some of these service providers to actually engage with the occupants, find out what their housing needs are."
But he also said things have been challenging for police, who are at the tent city four times a day. "Regularly our officers are met with aggression, insults hurled our way, attempts to intimidate police and move us off-site."
On Friday, an officer responded to a report of a man assaulted in a tent. When police arrived, the man declined to co-operate. "He felt intimidated," Chief Manak said. "He has to live on-site and he doesn't feel that the police are going to be able to protect him."
In one incident, the chief said, an officer was injured when he had to tackle a male resident running "absolutely out of control" after suffering from a crystal-meth overdose.
Asked Sunday about the situation, the office of B.C. Housing Minister Rich Coleman noted that the province is prepared to discuss new funding for police needs. It also said the province has contracted with a security firm to patrol the perimeter 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Last week, Mr. Coleman told reporters he was "absolutely" concerned about what's happening in the tent city, but the province is not yet ready to go back to court to seek an injunction to clear the site. He said the government is offering housing options for residents.
In April, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled against a bid by the province to remove the tent city residents, setting the stage for a hearing on the matter in September.