B.C's Representative for Children and Youth says at least 10 teenagers, including some in government care, are living in a controversial tent city in Victoria, which she says puts them at risk of sexual abuse and other dangers.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said her office has been monitoring the tent community since it went up last October, and she is aware young people between the ages of 15 and 19 have been living there.
"It has been an urgent situation since October. We're in February," Ms. Turpel-Lafond said in an interview on Tuesday. "I just don't believe that it is a safe and healthy environment for a child."
Ms. Turpel-Lafond said the province must deal with this issue. She acknowledged the Ministry of Children and Family Development has been monitoring events on site, but cannot be present late at night. "They need to be working very hard to get the kids out."
The province has served eviction notices effective on Feb. 25 to about 100 campers at the courthouse, citing safety concerns. The government has also promised housing options, some in a former youth-custody centre, for the campers. Ms. Turpel-Lafond said there is a "potential for sexual violence" at the camp, and she believes that this is happening. The Victoria Police Department said it is not aware of any such incidents. She also noted there is open addiction at the site and adults with mental-health issues who may not understand the needs of young people.
The Ministry of Children and Family Development disputes the suggestion that youth in the tent city are all in care, but said a social worker has been designated to visit the site daily and work with law enforcement to identify all youth present, assess their safety, continue to encourage them to leave and find safe, alternative arrangements.
"To be clear, we continue to view the tent city as a high-risk environment," the ministry said in a statement.
The ministry added that it has no legal authority to confine a child or youth in a foster care placement, "nor can the ministry restrain or forcibly remove any youth from a location, even if that location is a tent city."
Ms. Turpel-Lafond said the young people she has encountered have forsaken government care for life in the tent community.
"When I spent time and my staff spent time with some of those young people, they report that they have a stronger sense of community in the tent city than in the care system," Ms. Turpel-Lafond said in an interview on Tuesday.
A 17-year-old who is in the tent city after travelling to British Columbia from Saskatchewan said the camp is a terrific place where she has never had any trouble.
The woman, who said her parents were living in different countries and that she has spent time in foster care in Saskatchewan, said she has a lot of friends in the camp and feels "pretty protected" there.
"It took me a long time to feel comfortable here, because I didn't really know anyone," she said in an interview at the camp.
"I knew some people but still felt out of place, but it's an amazing place, not going to lie. A lot of things have happened here, but it's a good place to be."
The teenager said she has checked out provincial accommodation options, but also plans to return to Saskatchewan.
The Victoria Police Department said it is aware youth are living in the tent community. The force said in a statement that it does not consider the encampment an appropriate setting for young people.
With a report from Chad Hipolito in Victoria