Homeless people who have been camped out on the lawn of Victoria's downtown courthouse since last fall were subject to threats and intimidation by members of a local street gang with roots in California's prison system, says a senior police commander in the B.C. capital.
Victoria Police Inspector Scott McGregor identified the gang as the Nortenos, shedding light on the department's previous claims that an unidentified gang had invaded the tent community. The force did not elaborate when its acting police chief first referred to the gang in May. "Because of the high number of drug users at the tent city, it attracted those individuals who tried to establish a market niche," Insp. McGregor said. "With that, they brought violence and intimidation and extortion."
The homeless encampment, which was ordered dismantled this week by a B.C. Supreme Court judge, was set up seven months ago to protest a lack of affordable housing in Victoria, and its growth has been mired by concerns about drug use, sexual violence and the presence of gangs.
The Nortenos are a Hispanic gang that reportedly started in the California prison system in the 1960s but have expanded. However, Staff Sergeant Lindsey Houghton of the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit of B.C., the province's anti-gang unit, described the Victoria spinoff as being akin to "a really bad cover band."
Staff Sgt. Houghton said one leader has drawn others to the group's banner in Victoria, creating a group with about 10 members – half of them now in custody.
"There's one old-timer associated to the Greater Victoria group who has historical affiliations to the California Nortenos, having served prison time with them," he said.
Insp. McGregor said there have been three Norteno-related arrests at the tent city for offences including aggravated assault, carrying a concealed weapon and breach of recognizance – and the arrests deterred the presence of such gang activity.
The encampment is currently home to about 100 people, who have been ordered to clear out by Aug. 8, ending what the police inspector described as one of the biggest challenges the Victoria force has ever faced.
In his ruling, B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson said conditions had deteriorated at the tent city, which roused concerns from area residents about public disorder. The provincial government has said housing will be available to the campers by Aug. 8.
As of June 28, Insp. McGregor said, the police have spent about $35,273 of the $113,00 the police sought and secured from city council to deploy officers at the community. The plan was to budget for operations into September, but the tent community is coming to an end sooner than expected, he noted. It's not clear what will happen to unspent funds.
While Victoria does not have the level of gang-related violence seen in the Vancouver region, it has not been immune to gang issues, Insp. McGregor said.
He said the Nortenos have targeted substance abusers in vulnerable street populations, using beatings, threats with replica firearms and stabbings to collect debts and exert control.
While firearms have been seized and charges submitted, he said the use of firearms has not been as frequent as in the Lower Mainland. The inspector noted that Nortenos-related graffiti began to show up in the city in 2010.
Staff Sgt. Houghton said the Nortenos have had some impact. "Any individual involved in this activity is considered a threat or concern at some level. It has an impact on public safety," he said.
Police are hoping for a peaceful end to the tent city, Insp. McGregor said. "We'll plan for the worst and hope for the best. We'll certainly have resources in place to deal with any circumstances that we're facing there."
He said it's his view that people on the site feel they accomplished a lot in terms of issues around homelessness. "My hope is that people on the site will want to end on a high note and not have the entire focus of their entire seven-month effort culminate in an event where they're having to be arrested and pulled off the site by police."