For campers at Royal Athletic Park, Hey Neighbour pilot project can’t come soon enough

Local News

Camp director hopes that housing development can serve as transitional step towards permanent housing

royal athletic park
Photo provided.

For the more than 30 campers living in Royal Athletic Park’s parking lot, the Hey Neighbour pilot project has brought a ray of hope after several months of trauma and abuse. 

“I think it’s a wonderful proposal,” Tina Dawson, the director and a resident of the encampment at Royal Athletic Park, told the Martlet. 

The project, a collaboration between Aryze Developments and the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, aims to move members of the camp into 30 modified shipping containers by the end of March. Aryze Developments hopes to begin construction early this month.

Members of Victoria’s unhoused community have been camping in the parking lot at Royal Athletic Park since December when flooding forced them to leave Central Park only a few days before Christmas. Dawson says that many people lost their belongings in the flood, with little help provided by Victoria bylaw, who observed the cleanup of the park.

“Everything was destroyed, lost, gone, right at Christmas,” Dawson told the Martlet. “I had bylaw come by and tell me cheekily my mission today is to stay dry.”

In an emailed response to the Martlet, Sheldon Johnson, Manager of Engagement for the City of Victoria, said that BC Housing and the City provided new tents and bedding to those in need following the flooding and that supplies are being delivered to other parks upon request.

Negotiations between the city and aid organizations allowed for a temporary camping site to be set up in the parking lot of Royal Athletic. The site is mostly run by members of the unhoused community with food provided by Red Cedar Cafe, support services and other supplies by Red Cross and PEER Support, and security by Footprints Security Patrol. 

The North Park Neighborhood Association provides stipends to campers for small jobs such as delivering food and keeping the site clean.

“[People] get paid $20 to deliver breakfast and then whoever delivers dinner,” said Dawson. “We also have a clean team, people clean up for two hours a day and they earn money twice a week for doing such.”

Victoria mayor Lisa Helps also made an unannounced and unpublicized visit to the camp on Christmas Day to distribute coffee to residents and hear their concerns. This was very much appreciated by Dawson and the other campers.

Members of the community also recently fundraised over $2 000 to buy a new washer and dryer for Anawim House which allows members of the unhoused community to wash their laundry for free.

Dawson says that, for the most part, the community has banded together. However, the camp has faced abuse from some individuals who have, amongst other things, stolen supplies and dumped their garbage in the camp. Campers have also faced frequent verbal abuse. 

Dawson hopes that the Hey Neighbour development will provide campers with transitional housing in order to better prepare for the move into permanent housing. Many of those sheltering at Royal Athletic are former youth in care who have bounced around between tenuous housing and the street since they aged out of the system.

“The majority of people here have aged out of social services, or have come back and forth in and out [of housing],” said Dawson.

Dawson would also like to see aid organizations focus on giving “handups” to members of the homeless community instead of handouts. She would like to see more open job positions and other opportunities rather than just supply handouts. She says that there are too many groups as well who profit off of homelessness instead of providing real support. 

Recently, a private organization that owns three properties in Greater Victoria approached Dawson about building encampments on their land. She said they were looking to charge $700 a month for services.

Aryze Developments has mentioned the possibility of building bathroom and shower facilities on the site first so that they may be used while the shipping containers are being modified and put in place. Campers at the moment only have access to a crowd-funded portable toilet which often has no toilet paper. 

While construction is beginning shortly, Aryze Developments is still trying to raise funding for the second half of the shipping containers. At the time of writing, they had raised $453 000 of their $500 000 goal. They are hopeful that funding will continue to roll in and that they will be able to complete the project on time. 

In the end, Dawson just wants to see the project built. However, she also wants attitudes around homelessness to change from a punitive framework to a support-based one.

“As soon as somebody becomes homeless, we need to intercede immediately,” said Dawson. “Why are we still doing punishment?”