A windstorm whipped through Victoria's homeless "tent city" one night last week. The next morning, gusts continued to rattle Chris Parent's large shelter, upsetting some of the items on his makeshift altar: An eclectic collection of crystals and antlers, woven sweetgrass and a cross.
Mr. Parent joined the encampment on the lawn behind the provincial courthouse about two weeks ago. Despite one camper's efforts to rake leaves, it is not a pretty sight: A jumble of tents and tarps surround a muddy green, with bikes stuffed in the shrubs. As municipal and provincial officials work to find a solution to the homeless camp, Mr. Parent is one example of why it is so hard to resolve.
"When I sleep indoors, I get a rash. I like to be close to nature," he said. He does not want a shelter bed – he just wants a better tent.
Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for housing in B.C., says shelter beds are available for everyone in this camp. But he is not keen to seek a court order to clear the grounds, saying he prefers a "quiet approach."
His plan is to open a new 40-bed shelter in Victoria for the winter that would be accessible around the clock, offering meals and other services to help stabilize clients so they can, ideally, move into long-term housing.
"I don't believe in rushing out and getting an injunction," he said in an interview. "People have to understand the makeup of some of these folks. It is very tough because of their mental illness or addictions, or a combination. We are down there every day talking to folks and offering housing when we can. We usually find in a few weeks we can settle these things out."
Although the city has installed two portable latrines and a garbage bin, it is not clear how much longer neighbours will tolerate the location. However, both the mayor of Victoria and the Anglican dean of the magnificent cathedral across the street from the camp have expressed support for this approach.
Mayor Lisa Helps said her office is working closely with the province to find a solution "that won't just end up with people being dispersed to other parks."
Ansley Tucker, dean of Christ Church Cathedral, urged her congregation in a recent sermon to "exercise radical hospitality" and offer compassion to the campers across the street. Should they be forced to move? "Not unless we have a better solution," she said.
Mr. Coleman's tactics cannot yet be declared a success or failure, but he can claim unique experience as the minister responsible. Not one of his colleagues can claim such longevity on a particular file – for 10 years, he has held onto responsibility for housing, no matter what other cabinet duties he carried. "It's been nice, consistent work," he said.
Notably, he has managed to increase the provincial contribution to housing dramatically since he took over: During a decade of austerity measures imposed by his B.C. Liberal government, the annual budget has climbed from $148-million 10 years ago to $402-million today.
On his watch, Mr. Coleman has engineered a different approach to the file. He has shifted away from building affordable housing toward a system of rent supplements for 38,000 low-income families and seniors. That allowed him to put more money into accommodation for the difficult-to-house street populations.
Now, Mr. Coleman hopes to bring his approach to the national level. The new federal Liberal government has promised to boost spending on "social infrastructure" such as housing by billions, and he sees this as an opportunity to shape that still-undefined housing strategy.
For 10 years, he lobbied the former Conservative government in Ottawa to move away from government-constructed housing to tax changes that would encourage more construction of rental housing. "Then, if you are going to build something, let's concentrate on the most vulnerable populations."
With the change in government, there is another chance to push his agenda. It helps, too, that he is now the chair of the Provincial Territorial Housing Ministers Forum. "We will get together with the housing ministers and we will talk about it."
The homeless challenge, however, will not disappear.
Mr. Parent, in his tent with its Tibetan flags flapping in the wind, is not interested in a government-engineered housing solution. "For me, this is close to heaven."