Homeless B.C. nomads pitch tents at tony Oak Bay park after week at city hall

Chrissy Brett is shown at the Oak Bay homeless camp in Victoria, Wednesday, Oct.18, 2017. A nomadic group of homeless people has chosen one of Canada's wealthiest communities to pitch some tents and draw attention to housing shortages for disadvantaged people across British Columbia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dirk Meissner
Chrissy Brett is shown at the Oak Bay homeless camp in Victoria, Wednesday, Oct.18, 2017. A nomadic group of homeless people has chosen one of Canada's wealthiest communities to pitch some tents and draw attention to housing shortages for disadvantaged people across British Columbia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dirk Meissner

OAK BAY, B.C. - A nomadic group of homeless people has chosen one of Canada's wealthiest communities to pitch some tents and draw attention to housing shortages for disadvantaged people across British Columbia.

The latest location for the wandering group of 15 people is Willows Park, a seaside recreation area in the Victoria suburb of Oak Bay, known for its tea rooms, elderly population and turn-of-century mansions worth millions.

Chrissy Brett, a homeless activist and spokeswoman for the campers, said the campers arrived Wednesday after taking down their tents at the District of Oak Bay's municipal hall. She said the campers spent seven nights on municipal property.

"Every municipality should look at currently having a municipal campground available," she said. "This is more comfortable here than wandering the streets."

Brett spoke as a pelting rain with gusting winds threatened to lift her tent from its supports, while large waves crashed upon the nearby beach.

"The government needs to recognize Canadian citizens who are homeless," she said. "In Canada, you're a fourth-world person in a first-world country if you are Indigenous or homeless."

Housing Minister Selina Robinson said she is disappointed to hear about people living in tents anywhere in the province.

"It breaks my heart because that's not the kind of province I want to be living in where people can't find a home," she said Thursday. "At the end of the day, no British Columbian wants to see people in tents, in parks or on beaches."

Robinson said the government promised in its budget update last month to provide 2,000 modular units for the homeless and funding for staffing and support services. She expects at least 1,000 of the homes to be ready this winter.

Vancouver has already provided property to locate some of the modular homes, and they are in negotiations with officials in Surrey, Smithers and Greater Victoria about possible sites, she said.

"They are safe, secure. They have their own washrooms," Robinson said.

Brett said the group has camped in various Victoria-area communities for the past seven weeks, moving every seven days. She said they spent three weeks at different locations in Victoria, two weeks in nearby Saanich and will be in Oak Bay for at least two weeks.

Oak Bay's deputy police chief said the community is well aware of the campers and police have been on the watch, but so far it has been peaceful.

Ray Bernoties said Oak Bay's bylaws do not permit overnight camping in municipal parks, but since the campers have said they'll move within seven days police will wait and watch the situation.

"So far there have been no violent incidents, no property damage. There have been no noise complaints. At this time I'm inclined to wait them out and hope they keep their word," he said.

Brett said the municipalities have tolerated the campers in every location. She acknowledged that B.C. municipalities have been bearing the brunt of homeless issues as the provincial and federal governments cast off housing issues to communities.

Brett is an activist who spent weeknights living at Victoria's tent city homeless camp on provincial property at the city's downtown law courts before returning to live with her family on weekends.

For the past 3½ months Brett said she has been homeless and staying with family and friends. She said she was recently able to find housing for herself and her children, but that hasn't been finalized yet.

The camp at the law courts saw more than 100 homeless people build a village of tents, fences and fires on provincial property in the middle of an affluent, tree-lined downtown neighbourhood.

Neighbours complained of rats and used syringes, while the residents and homeless activists said the camp was a real-life snapshot of the lack of shelter space and housing for vulnerable people.

The first tents arrived at the courthouse lawn in November 2015, and the final tent did not come down until August of last year.

B.C. spent more than $25 million to purchase and renovate properties to provide over 190 spaces for homeless people in Victoria, including shelter and living units at a former youth jail, a community centre and a former seniors' care facility.

Bernoties said the campers have been a topic of conversation in Oak Bay.

"I can tell you Oak Bay people have been very compassionate towards the situation and the camp has indeed increased awareness and conversations in coffee shops in Oak Bay," he said.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Chrissy Brett was a longtime resident of the tent city in Victoria. It also said the homeless camp in Victoria was taken down in August.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved. 2017

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