Life in a piece of fabric: people living in Beacon Hill Park relocate, face harassment

Local News

Injunction by City of Victoria sees campers move to more exposed locations of Beacon Hill Park and shines a light on the everyday hardships facing Victoria’s street community

tent is my home poster in Beacon Hill Park
Photo by Michael John Lo

On July 28, the B.C. Supreme Court granted the City of Victoria an injunction ordering the over 100 people sheltering in Beacon Hill Park to relocate to designated areas of the park. City Council said in a written statement that the relocation of some campers is necessary in order to protect the park’s sensitive Garry Oaks ecosystem. The park also contains ancient Songhees and Esquimalt burial grounds which will also be barred from being used as a spot to shelter. The statement says that relocations will be conducted in a “compassionate and collaborative way.”

Meanwhile, people living in the park have voiced their concerns that the areas designated for relocation are out in the open — leaving them more open to harassment, theft, and physical assault by members of the wider Victoria community. 

Members of the wider Victoria community have also voiced concerns about Beacon Hill being used as a place to shelter, citing harassment by those sheltering in the park. 

Outreach worker and community member Thea Hinks says she has been impressed with the way the city and bylaw officers have carried out the relocation so far. She also says that conflict between people sheltering in the park and other community members stems from a lack of both privacy for those sheltering and compassion from other community members. 

In order to work towards a solution to Victoria’s homeless crisis, outreach workers like Hinks as well as health researchers like Dr. Bernie Pauly, a professor of nursing at UVic, are calling for the creation of more low-income and supportive housing. However, they caution that housing on its own will not solve the homeless crisis, and that greater supports are needed to address the root causes of homelessness. 

City of Victoria granted injunction

On June 25, city staff conducted an inspection of Beacon Hill Park. Following a consultation with City Council, staff recommended that certain areas of the park be cleared so as to protect sensitive areas of the park which include Songhees and Esquimalt burial grounds and the Garry Oaks ecosystem.

On July 10, the city filed for the injunction, and those sheltering in the park were handed notices informing them of the city’s plan and a map showing them the permitted areas. 

On July 28, the injunction was granted. Bylaw officers immediately began working with outreach workers to relocate those sheltering in sensitive areas. In a statement to the Martlet, the city said that at the time of the injunction, there were 38 structures in prohibited areas, and 78 in permitted areas. Hinks says that she estimates this number is now down to under five. City officials have said that most people have moved voluntarily, without the need for enforcement by bylaw or the Victoria Police Department.

Relocation efforts successful

Hinks is one of 10 community members turned outreach workers who have been assisting people sheltering in the park with everything from bicycle repairs to housing applications. She says that she has been impressed by the city’s efforts to relocate people in a compassionate way.

“Bylaw has been really, really good,” Hinks told the Martlet. 

Hinks and other outreach workers have served as the go-between for bylaw officers with those sheltering in the park which has resulted in a peaceful relocation.

“It’s been very successful,” Hinks said. “We took the pressure off of them by being just regular citizens going in and just saying, ‘hey, I’m so and so. I want to help you.’”

Although the relocation was handled with care, Pauly says that forcing people who are homeless to move can be stressful and affect their mental health.

“Moving is extremely stressful,” said Pauly, who specializes in health inequities related to substance use, poverty, and homelessness, said in an interview with the Martlet.

Pauly says that while she is happy with the city’s decision to suspend the 7-to-7 bylaw, which restricts camping in certain areas of the city including Beacon Hill Park between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., as it gives people a chance at stability.

“We’ve shown this through our own research that when people are able to stabilize, they’re able to stay in one place,” said Pauly. “They’re not under constant threat, they actually can relax and they can start the process of kind of figuring out ‘what do I want to do next with my life?’”

As for the complaints of harassment by people sheltering in the park, Hinks says that while she has not observed any harassment, she believes them and says that a lot of the issues facing them are due to a lack of privacy.

“It’s like having your entire front of your house open to the entire public that happens to be there,” she said. “They have no privacy whatsoever.” 

Although relocation has mostly been peaceful, some people sheltering in the park say that with the move they have been exposed to an increase in harassment. They feel the city’s top priority should be providing them with stable housing.

thank you sign on Pandora St
Photo by Michael John Lo from Pandora St in May

Life in a piece of fabric

People who are sheltering in place say they would much rather have a stable living situation, with a roof over their head and food in their fridge. Unfortunately, for many this is not a possibility.

Nicole, one of the people sheltering in Beacon Hill Park, lives in a tent with her boyfriend near the park’s entrance. She loves to play video games and hang out with her dog and her cat. She has not had a stable place to call home since before she was a teenager. She was placed in foster care as a result of her abusive relationship with her mother.

“I went to the ministry office myself at the age of 12 and told them to remove me from my mother or I would run away and no one would ever see me,” Nicole said. “It took me out of the abuse. But it pushed me right into foster homes that didn’t [care] whether I went to school or whether I even came home as long as they were receiving a cheque.”

During her 20s she struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. She has now been clean for four years but drugs, alcohol, and childbirth have taken a toll on her body, leaving her unable to work multiple jobs. Welfare helps her pay for groceries and other basic needs, but it is not enough for housing. In addition, most low-income housing is not pet friendly. Nicole said her dog and cat are like family, and provide much needed emotional support to her and her boyfriend so she couldn’t imagine giving them up.

When the city began to push for people to move out of certain areas of the park, Nicole and her boyfriend relocated to Douglas Street. However, being out in the open led to near constant harassment. They have since moved back to Beacon Hill, albeit to one of the designated areas of the park.

“Being [out] on Douglas allows people to drive by and honk and shout from their windows that we’re going to hell and you know that we’re garbage,” explained Nicole. “[People] will walk right through the camp and look right in our tents, call us garbage and take pictures of our stuff.”

“It makes us very exposed,” she said. “You know, at least if we’re in the bushes where we’re not around people, they don’t know that we’re there.”

Nicole alleges a group of intoxicated teenagers accosted her and assaulted her boyfriend. Nicole says that the group called her a whore and a bum and asked her why she didn’t just get a job. She also says that she has been denied access to the restroom at McDonald’s for the way she looks despite being a paying customer.

Meanwhile, members of the broader Victoria community have objected to the use of Beacon Hill Park by those sheltering in it. They allege that community members have been followed, harassed, and threatened. At the time of writing, a petition asking the city to relocate people sheltering in the park to other areas of the city had garnered more than 24 000 signatures. Several park workers have also refused to continue their work, citing threats against them by people living in the park.

Frustrated community members have taken to Facebook groups such as Save Beacon Hill to plan several protests in recent weeks that were later postponed. Nicole says that she saw one person comment that they wanted to get a group of people together to walk through Beacon Hill Park in the early hours of the morning and let those sheltering in the park know they aren’t welcome. Nicole thinks actions like this will escalate the already tense relationship with the community. 

She worries that the move to the more exposed designated areas of the park will increase abuse from the wider community.

“It makes us very exposed,” she said. “You know, at least if we’re in the bushes where we’re not around people, they don’t know that we’re there.”

What Nicole and her boyfriend want more than anything is a stable place to live. She says that they have filled out several applications with BC Housing. While she thinks their goal to get everyone housed is a great idea, she said it’s impossible to solve homelessness with housing alone.

She invites those who misunderstand homelessness to come down to the park, hear people’s stories, and hopefully walk away with an understanding of how people ended up where they are.

“[We’ve] got nothing to do all day. We don’t have cable, and we’d love to tell you about our lives.” Nicole said. “That’s the only way you’re gonna know. Because if you come by and you just look at our tents, and you judge us by [how we look], then you know nothing.”

Housing as a step forward

Both Hinks and Pauly say that they would like to see the government step up to provide those sheltering in Beacon Hill Park with long-term affordable and supportive housing. They are, however, quick to point out that housing alone is not a solution.

“Having permanent housing and housing options is really important in the long term,” says Pauly.

“The bottom line is we need to have more humanity,”

Pauly has spent years working on housing and harm reduction policies with the Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, Society of Living Illicit Drug Users, and the Victoria Cool Aid Society. 

She says that while housing is important, there are many reasons why people living on the street may not want to make the transition to the types of housing that are currently available, especially if they have restrictions on guests, pets, or even whether you can stay in the same room as your significant other.

“Well, if my choice is being in the shelter or my choice is being outside, I’m gonna choose being outside because I can be with my family or friends… [you] can stay as a couple, you can maintain your pets,” Pauly said.

Hinks says that she sees housing as a way for people to take a step forward but cautions that it is only the first step.

“It’s not perfect. Like I tell everyone, when they fill out the housing [application]: supportive housing isn’t a perfect issue. It’s a step up. So don’t think it’s going to be the, you know, the vacation in Hawaii thing. It’s not like that,” Hinks said. “It’s to get you off the streets. And then from there, you can work on your issues. Or you can ask for help to get into a different type of housing.”

Pauly says that systemic causes of homelessness are often forgotten.

“We’ve withdrawn investments into social housing. We’ve allowed the housing market to be privatized. We’ve had, you know, a withdrawal of other kinds of supports. You know, if we wanted to make a difference, it would mean to invest in those things, but also to invest in things like a living wage,” says Pauly.

Hinks says that at the end of the day it’s time for us as a society to look in the mirror and decide what kind of future we want.

“The bottom line is we need to have more humanity,” she says. “We need to have more people that care because basically what it’s showing us is how sick society is if we are willing to let people live on our streets like this and not help house them.”