It is becoming increasingly evident the B.C. government is not going to be able to wait until September to address growing problems at a homeless encampment that sprang to life last year on the grounds of a provincial courthouse in Victoria.
It would seem only a matter of time now before grievous harm comes to someone living there. Police say the site has been invaded by street gangs, bringing with them threats of intimidation and violence. Drug trafficking and use now happen regularly in the open. There have been drug overdoses as well. There are known to be weapons at the camp.
The province's youth advocate, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, recently urged the province to remove vulnerable teens who have moved onto the grounds, saying the situation poses a significant public-safety risk. Like many, she expressed bewilderment that the province's answer to serious issues related to the tent city was to install showers and toilets, making it more of a viable, long-term option to those living there.
Last month, a B.C. Supreme Court judge rejected a bid by the province to get a temporary injunction removing the campers until the matter is addressed in court in September. In his reasons for judgment, Justice Christopher Hinkson expressed sympathy toward the occupants, saying they simply had nowhere to go. He felt not enough had been done to build sufficient shelter spaces to accommodate all those unfortunate souls looking for a roof over their heads.
While I certainly nodded approvingly at the time at the compassion the judge demonstrated, circumstances have changed – and rather quickly.
The government's decision to install showers and toilets was well-intentioned. It was done to address hygiene and other public-health concerns on the advice of medical professionals. But it may have had an unintended consequence: making the site even more inviting to outsiders.
With the warmer, summer months about to arrive, the encampment is likely to become even more of a destination for the destitute but also for a criminal element that appears to have already begun preying on the weak and defenceless.
Victoria's chief of police, Del Manak, told a special meeting of city council last week that the situation at the camp is deteriorating and becoming unsafe not just for residents but also for social-service providers who are visiting regularly to check up on those living inside. He said residents in the area, already irate the camp has been allowed to not only exist but proliferate in size, are increasingly on edge over the criminal element now ensconced in their neighbourhood. The police are seeking more funding so police officers can attend the site on a more regular basis.
But that is not going to be enough to deal with the growing problems there.
It would seem the province will soon, if it doesn't already, have grounds to seek a new temporary injunction on the basis that the conditions at the camp have changed dramatically since Justice Hinkson last reviewed the matter. The fact that police are acknowledging that gangs have moved in and people are shooting up drugs in plain view of passersby should be enough on its own for the courts to accept another injunction application.
The concerns expressed by the province's children's advocate, herself a judge, should only add weight to the injunction cause.
B.C. Housing Minister Rich Coleman said recently the government wasn't ready to go back to court just yet. Meantime, it is offering housing alternatives to residents at the camp and for good reason. If and when the province does go seeking another injunction, it will need to demonstrate that it attempted to address issues raised by Judge Hinkson, namely the matter of insufficient shelter space in the city.
The Victoria homeless encampment should never have happened, I think we can all agree on that. But it did and now the problems that many predicted would surface if it was allowed to persist have arrived.
Something needs to be done and soon.