August 13, 2016 - 9:30 AM
VICTORIA - Fences are up and debris is being hauled away from the now-vacant homeless camp outside Victoria's courthouse, but British Columbia's housing minister says the cleanup will be long and costly.
The government declared Friday that the tent city where hundreds of people had been living since last November has officially been shutdown.
The announcement came four days after a court-ordered deadline passed. In July, B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson ruled the encampment was unsafe, unsanitary and needed to be dismantled.
By Friday afternoon, all of the campers had left voluntarily, Housing Minister Rich Coleman said in a conference call.
"It took a couple of days longer than I had hoped, but it was important that we do it right ... to do it peacefully, without confrontation," he said.
As the tent city grew, so did crime in the area, along with neighbourhood complaints, while sanitary conditions worsened. The province brought in water, showers and dumpsters, and the city expanded its budget to pay for increased policing.
Homes were offered to everyone living at the camp, though Coleman said some people declined or opted to move out of the community.
"We don't force people into homes. We have the homes available, the space available for people," he said.
The province said in a news release that more than 300 people have moved into government housing in recent months, including 100 who moved into a newly renovated building offering supporting housing.
Now the government has turned to the task of cleaning up the camp.
A bulldozer is scheduled to be on site Monday and soil samples will be taken to determine whether the ground has been contaminated. Early estimates are that cleaning the site will cost between $250,000 and $350,000, Coleman said.
Plans for the space's future are still uncertain.
"We're going to look at what we can do with this to make sure the site will become a credit to the neighbourhood that has had to put up with this situation," Coleman said.
The government wants to put something in the space that will benefit the neighbourhood instead of being a passive space, he said, adding that a child's playground is a possibility.
The minister said he has heard rumblings that other tent cities may soon pop up around Victoria to protest affordable housing.
When people are homeless and legitimately in need of housing, the government will try to connect them with supports, Coleman said, adding some of those truly in need may be being used to further an argument.
"There is a group of people out there ... who will basically set up a camp and then get people who are on the streets and homeless and need our help to come to the camps and use them as cover," he said.
Coleman said he doesn't buy protesters' argument that they are trying to help.
"My frustration has always been people who do that and who use people who are in tough straights in their life, with mental health and addictions on our streets, as pawns to further their agenda," he said. "That's the difference to me and I find that behaviour unacceptable."
— By Gemma Karstens-Smith in Vancouver
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016