Any way you look at what I’m about to share with you, what’s happening on Victoria’s streets is wrong.
My observations from a recent shadowing of bylaw officers are an unvarnished testimony of what I witnessed, told by bylaw and police, and from people living on the street.
First, a couple of facts; there is a bylaw that you cannot obstruct sidewalks or set up structures on boulevards. Sheltering is permitted in specific parks between the hours of 7am and 7pm.
Also, bylaw officers have no power of arrest. I hear time and time again, “Arrest people camping in parks and on the street and remove the tents and structures”. It can’t be done.
Bylaw works to “gain compliance”. This means reminding people of bylaws, cajoling, requesting, instructing, reminding, and - very often - secretly hoping people comply. Enforcement is time consuming.
This goes for everyone, by the way. People living on the street know the limitations and they definitely are under no threat of arrest from bylaw officers.
The day begins at 7 am
My day begins early. Bylaw starts with a daily briefing in their office that I’m not allowed to attend for privacy reasons.
I join the convoy of vehicles around 7 am as we head over to the 900-1,000 block of Pandora Avenue.
We first check a local park to see if there are any campers. Bylaw knows the people living on the street and the supervisor points to a solitary tent.
"Raped three or four times a day"
“That’s a young lady who I’m told has the mental capacity of a 7-year-old”, he begins. I know the name of the woman and her history. She has been housed, but for some reason she is now back living in a park.
She has been repeatedly sexually assaulted. Police have tried to protect her, but her cognitive ability is such that she cannot provide a statement to Crown Counsel. By default, she has nowhere to go except the street.
“We leave her alone,” the bylaw supervisor tells me. “I mean, what are we going to do? There must be some compassion. She really should be in a facility for treatment and protection.”
But there is nothing. No treatment and no protection. So, she stays on the street. Police believe she is raped three or four times a day – mostly by older men also living on the street.
I have seen such devastation and human crisis in Haiti, here we see the ravages of addiction and mental health.
We arrive on Pandora where we meet two men who accompany bylaw to clear garbage, drug paraphernalia and abandoned belongings and dump them into a large garbage skid.
Alongside are officers from VicPD who work with bylaw to clear the encampments that sprung up overnight.
The structures are numerous and everywhere. The only other time I have seen such devastation and human crisis was in Haiti, 10 weeks after that country’s massive 2010 earthquake. There, the streets were littered with tents and structures – the inhabitants all trying to build small towns for their safety and community.
It is the same on the streets of Victoria. Only, here we see the ravages of addiction and mental health.
It quickly becomes clear why police are part of the morning wake up regime.
Bylaw surveys the street and identifies a man known to be “very violent.” The day before he slashed the tires of a bylaw vehicle and bylaw won’t go anywhere near him unless they have a police escort.
The woman has been attacked and is in bad shape.
As bylaw approaches a lone woman sleeping in a small tent, the officers find the man has struck again. The woman has been attacked and is in bad shape. Bylaw informs one of the VicPD community resource officers nearby who check on the woman. Bylaw leave this tent until the end before asking the woman to take the tent down.
A couple at the far east of Pandora are identified as “aggressive, difficult and angry.” Bylaw ask VicPD to accompany them to request the tent be removed.
I know about the couple; their names are familiar. They lived in Beacon Hill Park and received housing. I ask why they were living on the street again, but that information isn’t known to bylaw or VicPD.
The best explanation anyone can offer is that couples are often placed in separate housing where guests are not allowed. I’m told that many often leave their rooms and spend time in a tent for conjugal visits or socialization. I ask why this happens when the solution appears simple. Everyone shrugs their shoulders and add “How BC Housing assigns housing is a secretive process.” I shake my head.
“How BC Housing assigns housing is a secretive process.”
As the man comes out of his tent, he is very angry and begins yelling at bylaw. The situation turns tense. VicPD moves in and encourages the man to settle down. He does, but not without a constant angry commentary directed at bylaw. Standing on the edge of the campsite is the clean up crew nabbing articles of wet clothing and garbage strewn around the boulevard.
We next move onto the area in front of The Harbour, a supervised consumption site catering to intravenous users. I stand watching the congregation of people huddled together with their belongings to keep warm.
Two people are injecting, and a woman is burning a rock and inhaling. Police stand by as the group is asked to move so the street can be washed.
Drug paraphernalia litters the sidewalk. 10 to 15 crack pipes are sitting on a garden chair nearby.
As I stare at the door of The Harbour, it’s here I am overcome with emotion.
“Where will this woman go?” I ask a VicPD officer as she slowly packs up her drugs and garbage bags. He’s blunt and annoyed at the question because of the helplessness of the situation. “In a few minutes she will go across the street to McDonald’s and hang over there, likely in the washroom, and in about four hours we will be called to remove her from there.”
As I stare at the door of The Harbour, it’s here I am overcome with emotion. I am on the verge of tears and at the same time very angry.
I have not seen a single support worker from one of the service providers on Pandora
On the door of The Harbour the hours of operation say the facility is open “08:30 am to 8:00 pm.”
I ask myself, “Is THIS the only time we want to prevent overdoses?!” It’s clear to me there is a need for an overdose prevention facility here judging from the evidence everywhere you walk and from the pile of paraphernalia gathered by the clean up crew.
The only assistance is Narcan kits attached to the outside of the building.
Up until this moment I have not seen a single support worker from one of the service providers on Pandora except staff from Our Place serving coffee and breakfast.
From a previous evening spent with police, I know the default agency looking out for drug users is VicPD. Repeatedly officers approach people on the street to check on their well being and ask if they need a place to sleep. When an individual has clearly used, officers ask them to stay in the area and not go and sleep elsewhere to ensure someone is around to help should they overdose.
"I also come here to be around other people."
We cross the street and bylaw approaches another encampment.
A man who lives at a shelter on Gorge Road comes to talk to me. He’s been in and out of jail, he uses, and he’s dealt drugs.
I ask him why he’s on Pandora at night when he has a home?
“It’s not for drugs,” he explains. “Well, it is for drugs. I also come here to be around other people. The situation at the hotel I’m in is that I’m shut in my room.”
He is unstable on his feet and his speech is slurred, but he’s very honest and open.
“So, you come here to socialize?” I ask.
“That’s it. And there’s more to do here,” appearing somewhat relieved that someone understands.
The clean up crew moves in, and grabs abandoned blankets. The rule is anything that’s wet must go to the landfill, only dry items can be stored.
Bylaw identifies items that need to be impounded. It’s a long process. Bylaw check the area to see if the owner can be located. If not, photographs and an inventory is taken, and the items are taken to one of the city lockers where owners can retrieve the items.
Bylaw approaches one last area to the cleared on the boulevard. Again, police are asked to assist because one of the individuals can be erratic. I know the man. I met with him several times. He was offered his pick of housing, but he refused.
I spent hours trying to convince him to comply with a court order to move his tent away from sensitive areas when he lived in Beacon Hill Park. He was going to make a stand, but eventually moved.
I met him next in Central Park where he spent time educating me on life in the parks and what was needed.
My last conversation with him didn’t go well. I tried to convince him to move into housing, notably the Tiny Homes project on Caledonia.
At the time he told me over the phone, “I’m used to a larger home.”
“You’re being unreasonable,” I explained. The conversation went awry from there ending with the man yelling at me “&^#$ you, Stephen Andrew!” and an equally “Well, &^#$ you! I can’t help you then.”
There must be a better solution.
At today’s encounter it begins calm and then turns into a display of anger and indignant rhetoric as he grabs his cell phone and records bylaw officers standing by waiting for the encampment to be dismantled.
At this point bylaw, clean up crews and police had spent close to 2 hours clearing the street.
A quick conservative tally of salaries and resources to perform this daily ritual is about $2,000 – That’s more than $700,000 a year. There must be a better solution.
Bylaw spends about 80 percent of their day preventing and dismantling encampments. They say if they don’t stay on top of this work, the camps become entrenched and the level of crime, violence and ill-health grows exponentially.
Our next stop is the area close to The Mustard Seed on Queens. Bylaw explains the nearby Bottle Depot is an area of concern. Over the past month employees of the recycling facility have been victims of increasing assault and violence. It reached such a point; bylaw says WorkSafeBC managed to the convince the facility to increase security.
He’s very ill with pneumonia or Covid.
Across from the Mustard Seed, an encampment built in the bushes appears abandoned. Rain has soaked blankets and the clean up crew begins to dismantle the structure.
Bylaw searches for the owner and finds him tucked against the wall of the street church. He’s very ill with pneumonia or Covid. He’s so weak that he doesn’t have the energy to lift a couple of items that he wants to keep.
Bylaw repeatedly calls Island Health for the pandemic crisis team. No one picks up the call and the voicemail box is full.
After the man says he has shelter, the team takes his name and other details and will call back to the pandemic line to try and get help.
This is not the first person we find in distress. I cannot help but think there needs to be a team of outreach workers on the morning rounds to care for the vulnerable.
The next stop is Ellice Street and the area surrounding Rock Bay Landing.
During the most challenging time of the pandemic, this street was filled with people with hoarding challenges, living in filth and unsanitary conditions. There, shelters were everything from make-shift sheds to refrigerator boxes.
Bylaw managed to move everyone into shelters. I watched as it took days to break up the encampment. They were patient and kind. They provided food, ensured everyone was listened to and calmed their anxiety. They even took bottles and cans to recycling, sorted them, and brought back the cash to the collectors.
Since that time, city crews fenced off to prevent another encampment from taking hold.
People sleeping outside are setting up again, but bylaw insists they cannot block the sidewalk.
The engagement goes well except a young man presenting with mental health challenges does not want to cooperate.
Elsewhere on the street, two men want to store their shopping cart of belongings inside Rock Bay Landing.
The first time I see street support and care
An employee of the emergency shelter explains, they don’t have room for storage and the men are in a difficult position as they are likely to have their items stolen if they leave them unattended.
The lack of storage comes up repeatedly, but no one has an answer to how it could manage the situation or those who have hoarding issues.
At Rock Bay Landing it is the first time I see street support and care with the Telus/Cool Aid Community Health Mobile Clinic in attendance
Our final stop is Beacon Hill Park. Bylaw received a call that someone is camping in the park. A recent bylaw banned camping in the park.
When we arrive, a small yellow tent has been abandoned with garbage and liquor bottles tossed on the ground together with a rain-soaked pair of running shoes place neatly outside the tent. All this is directly under a large sign notifying park users there is no camping.
Bylaw clears the area and impounds the tent.
For me, it’s the final stop of the day as my supervisor is called back to the office.
He and the other bylaw team thank me for joining them and learning about their work.
I explain it is me who should be thankful for their help and showing me what no report could ever offer.