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  • The virus and the unhoused

    Photojournalist Pete Rockwell’s visit with the encampments of Beacon Hill Park.

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    THE VIRUS EPIDEMIC EMPTIED THE CITY STREETS. Everyone was told to stay home unless absolutely necessary. Wear masks. Don’t get close to anyone you don’t live with. Isolate. People were afraid.

    Wait. How can homeless people stay home? After many years of enforcing bylaws making tent cities illegal, the City said the unhoused could stay in a number of public spaces. No, wait. They could stay 24 hours a day along Pandora Street and an official tent encampment in Topaz Park. No, wait again. The tents multiplied. People were amazed that there are so many homeless people. Voters complained. OK, the City and the Province said they would provide hotel rooms. The List appeared. If you got on The List, you got a room. If not, no room. Either way you had to leave Pandora Street and Topaz park.

    Some of the people who didn’t get rooms migrated to Beacon Hill Park.


    The transmitter in the jungle

    On my visit in June, I came across a young man sitting on a bench. A small dome tent stood nearby. “You live in the park here?” “Yeah” “I’m looking for a podcaster who’s supposedly encamped somewhere around here” He pointed down a path leading into the shadows of trees and thick foliage.

    I started down the path. It was still damp from recent rains. It narrowed. And darkened. Images flickered through my mind. Hidden transmitters in the jungle. Che in the Sierra Maestra. Kurtz. I was getting that Viet Cong feeling. I heard voices. I called out. “Take the next path to your right,” someone shouted. It was even more hidden than the one I was on. It  ended at a camouflage tarp. A pit bull ran out from behind. Jesus. The tarp was swept aside by a good sized 30-something man. There stood Shea Smith. “C’mon in.”

    Inside, camouflage tarps are stretched over a tent or two. Partially-covered space extends further into the trees. Shea and his partner Melva are sitting at an oval table with two by four legs. Shea keeps getting cellphone calls. He’s been trying to organize some unified resistance to whatever the outside world decides to do with the encampments spread throughout the park. Part of his efforts are directed to podcasts (https://anchor.fm/homelesidea) and a website: https://thehomelessidea.ca/

    I had found the transmitter in the jungle.

    People come and go through the compound. There is animated talk about June 25. The city council passed a motion allowing people to camp 24 hours a day until then. At that point decisions will be made. This has caused a lot of uncertainty and anxiety, throughout the park.

    There’s also talk about how the hotel rooms were distributed. One fellow, Nebs, said: “I end being quite disheartened. I’ve been talking to so many people [about getting on the list] and they’ve been talking to me yet I haven’t seen any action on their part of being put on any lists to be helped with housing and all that. I need to go into Detox. I need a room after Detox. I don’t want to continue living in a tent. Its’s summertime, a nice time of year, but I mean it’s a half-day ordeal just to go have a shower. I’d like to have a job again. I have certifications in Microsoft and other AI entities. I’d like to be in a position where I could move forward again.”

    Another guy named Ryan also commented on the randomness of getting hotel rooms: “I think it’s unfair. You know, if they did it a different way, maybe if they did it like, ok, if all the elderly people get hotels, I would have been ok with that, I would have been totally fine with it. But the way they did it was totally randomized, Like, ok you’re lucky, you win the lottery, you don’t. They should have gone about it in different way.” 

    Beacon Hill Park has been “been a really positive experience” for Ryan, who noted, “A lot of people have helped us out and I really appreciate everyone’s help, honestly, like Niki from Backpack Project, some others like Grandma Rose, she’s been really helpful and I really appreciate her, multiple other people come by and give us items. I just hope we can stay here, I really do. If they’re not going to give us hotel rooms like they promised I think they should just let us stay here.”

    On the other side of the next tarp is a camping gazebo with counter space. This is one of three distribution points established by Niki Ottosen as part of her Backpack Project. Every Friday she brings a car-full of stuff and carts it around to the three gazebos and a few individual tents along the way. Sometimes she lets me tag along.

    Meanwhile, opposition to the campers was brewing.


    The petition

    Last time I looked, Cynthia Diadick’s petition to the Mayor et al, had over 10,000 people signing on. It applauds the police and says “Vic PD has done a tremendous job and need to be better funded and supported.” This at a time when DEFUND THE POLICE is gaining traction around the world. The petition demands “that Beacon Hill Park no longer serve as a campground or tent city for the homeless and for camper vans.” Presumably, this is to be enforced by the police.

    The petition makes a number of claims, none of them substantiated with actual evidence. The only sources she cites (in interviews) are “neighbours have been sending her messages about trash, needles and human waste being left in the park.” The NIMBY mantra.

    Other claims include:

    “There are over 90 homeless and RV campers now camping in our city’s majestical city park.” According to Shea Smith, the podcaster, the number [in June] is closer to 30 or 40.

    As far as vans go, the streets through and around the park aren’t part of the park.

    “Social distancing and self-isolating is not occurring,” states the petition. I’ve wandered throughout the park over the last several weeks and what I see is that social distancing is happening. That’s why these people are there. That’s one of the reasons the City has so far let them stay.

    “…chop shops and tents stationed in clearly-marked sensitive Garry Oak Ecosystems…” No evidence is given for such “chop shops.” The sensitive Garry Oak ecosystems were marked  (not so clearly) weeks after tents were put up.   

    “As taxpayers, we are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain our Butchart Gardens-like Beacon Hill while it is willfully being destroyed.” Willfully? They’re destroying the park on purpose? This is not what I see. I’ve talked to a number of people living in the park and they’ve all told of efforts made to maintain a park that they also cherish.

    Shea Smith said of the petition: “It’s all BS, it’s all a fallacy, it’s lies. This is the thing; when you’re coming with these kinds of accusations, these are terrible terrible things to say. You are bringing harm to us. It’s sickening…and the way she words it ‘our majestical park.’ Are you from fuckin’ Disneyland? ”

    Homeless activist David Johnson who is camping in the park, told me: “Ultimately it’s just more noise. She’s asking not really, ‘do we want people in Beacon Hill?’ She’s actually asking ‘do we want to put all the homeless in a ghetto and how many votes are necessary to condone internment camps.’ At the same time, it’s madness out there and everyone is afraid and the city’s done a wonderful job of drowning itself in anxiety so it’s really easy to categorize all tents as housing horror and bad and terror and crazy criminalness. So that’s basically tyrannical. A responsible or enlightened government would understand that you have to measure each person’s conscientiousness.”

    A camper named Mikey explained how the homeless in the park have more reason to be afraid of the public than the reverse: “I get the idea that people are generally afraid of homeless people…on the contrary, we’re more afraid of the general public because they do unexpected irrational things…like knocking over shopping carts and running away and I catch up to a couple of these guys and they get all combative with me and want to circle around me. Another time they had these things called bear bombs, they just go ‘bang’ really loud. Super loud, like flash bangs. They tell me to ‘get a job, get a home, get a life.’ This is my job, this is my home, this is my life.”


    Update: August 1

    JUNE 25 CAME AND WENT. The City voted to let the campers stay until the pandemic is over. People in the park are still there. The number of people signing the petition has grown to 22,000, a mean-minded piece of work that reduces individual humans to “the homeless” and all the NIMBY clichés that the term entails.

    In July, all campers were urged to move to areas deemed less ecologically sensitive, and most complied. Niki Ottosen observed on her Facebook page: “The pictures that have been on Facebook recently, are of a camp that was abandoned off of Cook Street near Dallas Road…Bylaw did not clean the camp up right away like they did on Pandora Street and Topaz??? Instead passersby took photos and are saying this is what the entire park looks like?!! Well I can tell you firsthand it’s not…And you can see it for yourself if you drive down Douglas Street all the way down to Dallas Road. People are moving off of environmentally sensitive areas as we speak. So don’t be surprised if you see more tents down Douglas Street. Because this is where the campers are being pushed to…This is where bylaw wants them.”

    Some campers did not move. So the City of Victoria went to court in late July for a court order allowing them to move people into less ecologically-sensitive areas of the Park. 

    I try to show in my photographs not only the individuality, creativity, and innovation I see, but, the sheer resolve and perseverance it takes to get through the day without even the basics (running water, heat, stove, soft bed, etc.) much less a stable home.

    Pete Rockwell is a Victoria-based photographer.

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