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Victoria's 'tent city' on verge of becoming public health hazard

Supporters join David Arthur Johnston at their erected "Tent City" in Beacon Hill Park at sunrise in Victoria Friday.

Deddeda Stemler/deddeda stemler The Globe and Mail

Two years ago, a landmark court ruling gave homeless people the right to pitch their tents in Victoria city parks. Now the province's chief medical health officer says a bustling "tent city" made possible by that decision is on the verge of becoming a public health hazard.

"Any time you have a number of people camped together without hygienic facilities for a period of time there's a potential for a health risk to those individuals," Dr. Perry Kendall said.

"And if you have a group of people in an area who are using or injecting drugs, there is a risk of blood-borne infections … and that's a potential public health issue."

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Located on a wide, grassy boulevard near the Our Place homeless shelter on Pandora Avenue, the tent city has been growing all summer, said Dr. Kendall, who drives past the site every morning on his commute to work.

Robert Randall, chairman of the Victoria Downtown Residents Association, said most nights this summer anywhere from 30 to 60 people have set up tents, tarps and makeshift shelters on the site, including a core group who have either refused shelter or been banned from Our Place.

The result has been an increase in violent crime, drug use, prostitution, used needles and discarded condoms.

"It's become a drug-buying destination for the region, there are old blankets and sleeping bags and refuse everywhere and people are increasingly using the area as a toilet," Mr. Randall said.

Similar problems occurred outside the former AIDS Vancouver Island needle exchange on Cormorant Street, less than three blocks from Our Place, Mr. Randall said.

The only fixed-site needle exchange in the Capital Region, the Cormorant Street location closed in 2008 after continuing complaints from neighbours.

The city is keenly aware of the "social disorder that's happening on the 900-block of Pandora," said Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin, adding that the solution lies in a "co-ordinated effort" among the city, the police, the province and street-level service providers.

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But he also expressed frustration that homeless people are choosing to camp outdoors despite the availability of 85 additional shelter beds the province provided funding for this spring.

'We understand that 50 per cent of those beds are open and people are choosing not to use them," Mr. Fortin said. "A lot of people on the boulevard are people who aren't ready to deal with the mental health and addiction problems."

Our Place, a fixture on Pandora Avenue for two decades, reopened in 2008 in a new $15-million building, including 45 new shelter beds. However, the facility is open only from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

It would be "deeply ironic" to provide campers on the boulevard with bathrooms and showers when those amenities are available at Our Place, Mr. Fortin said.

"It would make a lot more sense to open up the permanent facility that's already built right there," he said.

Our Place founder, Rev. Al Tysick, said Friday that opening the shelter from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week, would have a "major impact" on the Pandora Avenue problem.

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That would require an additional $1-million in annual funding, and so far "the province hasn't stepped up to the plate."

However, Mr. Tysick said there's no easy way to deal with the hard-core element of street people who choose drug addiction and sleeping outdoors over the safety and warmth of a homeless shelter.

"We can solve the problem on Pandora Avenue, but that will just make them move somewhere else," he said. "If they can't camp there they need to be able to camp somewhere."

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