Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A small tent encampment in Victoria, on March 12.Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

The Norwegian cruise ship, Bliss, glided into port early last week to disgorge 4,000 passengers, eager to look around British Columbia’s picturesque capital.

Bliss’s arrival marked the opening of cruise ship season, the lifeblood of Victoria’s tourist-based economy. This year, 315 passenger ships will bring upward of 910,000 people to the city, many of whom will clutch maps of the provincial capital as they head out in search of mementos or a double-decker sightseeing bus to hop onto.

Some will wander far enough to discover something the city isn’t keen to promote: a persistent homelessness problem.

Pandora Avenue, in the downtown core, has long been a magnet for displaced persons. A broad stretch of sidewalk extending a long city block is today the site of a number of tents, some quite large, that house dozens and dozens of homeless people, many of whom are drug-addicted and mentally ill. Outreach workers have noted the recent arrival to the camp of people from outside the province and also an increase in the number of youth.

It’s all had a debilitating impact on nearby businesses, such as McDonald’s and Save-On-Foods, which are constantly calling police to deal with issues caused by those who have little to eat and no place to turn when nature calls.

While we often think of bigger cities like Toronto and Vancouver when we talk about Canada’s homeless problem, Victoria has also been at the forefront of this crisis. Its moderate climate undoubtedly has something to do with it. So, too, has the compassion and sympathy some have held for those living with no fixed address.

In April, 2016, B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson made national headlines when he ruled against a temporary injunction the city was seeking to take down a tent commune that had sprung up on the lawns of the provincial courthouse. He argued that those living there were better off than they would be sleeping in the alleyways and sidewalks they had been calling home. The judge also noted that if he granted the injunction, those living in the tents would simply move somewhere else, to become someone else’s problem.

In recent years, however, the situation has become so endemic that civic officials have had to take a sterner approach. Even Justice Hinkson reversed his own 2016 decision just a few months later, citing safety concerns as conditions at the provincial courthouse encampment worsened. Since then, the city has continued clearing homeless encampment sites that were, for instance, taking over popular parks and other areas in the downtown core. But every time a congregation of makeshift dwellings has been taken down in one area, they’ve popped up again somewhere else, just as Justice Hinkson predicted.

Last year, the Capital Regional District released a homeless individual count that found 1,665 people living outside across Greater Victoria. It represents a number that has been increasing, despite the best efforts of the city and province to find solutions.

In February, the province and city announced the opening of a 30-unit building intended as temporary shelter for those needing the kind of stability necessary for resuming a “normal” life. The city also recently increased its extreme weather shelter capacity. Meantime, the city and province continue to work on finding other temporary and permanent supportive housing options for folks in need.

People are trying.

But Victoria has become a microcosm of the homelessness problem nationwide. Policy makers can’t make enough housing available quickly enough to accommodate everyone needing a place to live. Every time a place is opened to help reduce the numbers of those living on the street, there are dozens more arriving to take their place on the sidewalks and parks throughout the city.

While no one wants to surrender to the problem, we, as a society, may need to adjust our expectations. We may need to accept that homelessness is a crisis that is here to stay. The number of displaced people is increasing at a rate that far outpaces the ability of civic leaders to find a place for them all to live.

A lack of affordable housing, as we all well know, is not just a problem that plagues those without a place to live. It’s a challenge even for those with well-paying jobs. There are too many people chasing far too few housing options.

There is no such thing as a good homeless encampment. They all become a problem sooner or later. The tent city on Pandora Avenue has grown in numbers in recent weeks. The congestion eventually will become overwhelming. The issues emanating from the presence of the camp are so big and complex that something has to be done.

It will almost surely be removed. At which point, the occupants will move somewhere else, to become someone else’s problem.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe