VICTORIA – Donald Smith says he’s done with being homeless, leaving a tent city at Victoria’s courthouse in the face of an eviction order.
He’s tired of fighting the system and has agreed to move into Our Place, a former youth jail that’s been converted into a government shelter.
“You know what, enough is enough, I’ll take it to get the help I need because I suffer from a lot of mental health issues,” said Smith, 36. “I fight the system, but I finally said, ‘I’m done. I’m going to take it.’ “
Thursday marks the Victoria camp’s eviction day, but city police and British Columbia’s government have signalled the deadline is a soft one geared towards people voluntarily leaving the camp as opposed to a forced eviction.
Smith, dressed in a blue T-shirt, surveyed the tents, tarps and pallet-board structures that comprise the homeless camp on Wednesday before tossing a green garbage bag carrying his worldly possessions into a waiting moving truck.
“People are moving already,” said Rich Coleman, B.C.’s minister responsible for housing. “I’ve heard as many as 50 may be moving on within the next 24 or 48 hours. “I’ve said all along we’re going to do it respectfully.”
Const. Matt Rutherford said there is no legal order in place for Victoria police to enforce.
In recent weeks, the B.C. government and Victoria social agencies have reached deals on housing for up to 230 people, which includes shelter space at a former Boys and Girls Club, a seniors residence and a vacant youth custody facility.
The camp grew from a few tents last spring to more than 100 people and dozens of tents, catapulting the issue of homelessness from alleyways and parks to the highly visible manicured grounds of the downtown courthouse.
City bylaws permit people to camp in parks if shelter space is not available, but people have to pack up the next morning. The courthouse camp is on provincial land and not subject to the bylaw.
A show of support for the camp is expected Thursday to coincide with the eviction deadline.
Chris Parent, who has been at the camp since last November, said he’s staying put despite eviction notices and government offers of shelter.
Parent, 40, of Victoria, said he views the camp as a political statement by people who have slipped through society’s cracks but have created their own community.
“My real problem is the government, so why would I want to take something they are offering,” he said. “We’re trying to start a new system that’s not broken. It may not be as pretty as what everybody wants but if that’s the case, then help us make it prettier.”
Parent said he’s been living in an eight-person octagonal yurt that’s adorned with Tibetan welcome flags and aboriginal artifacts. He earns money as a registered busker playing Tibetan bowls, he said.
Christine Brett of Vancouver Island said she’s been spending much of the past year at the camp and doesn’t plan on leaving, although she supports others who are moving to government housing.
“We’re going to stand our ground because this is not just a Victoria issue,” she said. “It’s a provincial issue and, really, it’s a Canadian issue.”
Former Edmonton resident Raymond Bailey said he was one of the first campers to move into a 38-bed transitional shelter but he returned to the camp Wednesday to visit his friends.
To describe life at the camp, he said: “Family, loyalty, trust, respect. Those aren’t just words in a dictionary. Friends, family, everybody’s here.”