In Depth

Victoria homeless camp a symptom of B.C.'s broken housing market

The dramatic leap in housing prices in British Columbia has pumped hundreds of millions of unexpected tax dollars into provincial coffers, but residents of Victoria's long-standing tent city wonder why so little of it has been shared with the province's poorest residents.

'It's horrendous, the conditions people are living in,' says neighbour

Organizers say between 60 and 120 people have been living in Victoria's tent city. (Chris Corday/CBC)

The dramatic leap in housing prices in British Columbia has pumped hundreds of millions of unexpected tax dollars into provincial coffers, but Bert Woldring wonders why so little of it has been shared with the province's poorest residents.

Woldring is among a hundred or so campers who have turned the area behind Victoria's provincial courthouse into a makeshift tent city.
Tent city resident Bert Woldring says B.C. needs to start sharing with the poor the tax revenues it's collecting during the province's housing boom. (Chris Corday/CBC)
"We want homes. We haven't been able to get them in the system, so we have done what we can where we are," Woldring told CBC News as he walked on paths between the tents and tarp structures, just a few blocks from the city's picturesque inner harbour.
Victoria's tent city is a few blocks from the inner harbour, which is packed with tourists in the summer. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Woldring says he almost lost his arm in a workplace accident a decade ago and hasn't been able to work since. He once lived in a tent city in Maple Ridge, B.C., but moved to Victoria this past spring.

His construction skills have come in handy, as he's helped people here build frames, floors and roofs for their homes with donated wood.

No vacancy but big revenues 

After seven months, this community now has a semi-permanent feel to it, with artwork and flower planters for decoration. There's also a trailer with flush toilets, showers and a hose with running water.

A central plaza area serves as a site for communal barbecues and there's a kiosk with emergency health supplies and condoms.

"If you'll notice, we have little neighbourhoods here, little enclaves," said Woldring during the tour.

"This has some sense of community. We feel like it's a place where we belong."
People living nearby have complained the tent city is unclean and unsafe, despite residents' efforts to keep it orderly and neat. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Provincial welfare rates — and vacancy rates for social housing — are ridiculously low, said Woldring, and the $375 per month many receive for social housing won't cover rent costs.

A 2014 homeless count in Victoria concluded as many as 1,400 people in the provincial capital couldn't find a place to live.

"This can be fixed," said Woldring.
Woldring tells the CBC's Chris Brown the tent city where he lives offers homeless residents a rare sense of community. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Premier Christy Clark's government collected more than $1 billion in property transfer tax, he said. "We should be getting enough money out of that to provide decent housing for people displaced."

Province in court, again

The province is now before B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson for the second time in three months to try to show it's belatedly anteing up for those in the tent city.

In the first hearing, the judge sided with the campers, saying there simply weren't any better housing options for them other than staying put.
The B.C. government says it is spending millions to find housing options for the tent city residents. (Chris Corday/CBC)

In a statement to CBC News, the office of Housing Minister Rich Coleman says that since the first hearing, $26 million has been spent to create 370 new beds in shelters and other longer-term housing options.   

The province recently purchased an old Super 8 motel as well as a former senior centre.
Protesters want Victoria's tent city to be allowed to remain until B.C.'s housing crisis is properly addressed. (Chris Corday/CBC)

'It's just awful'

Exasperated neighbours such as Stephen Hammond blame the province for letting the tent city drag on as long as it has.

Hammond said property crime, threats and intimidation have forced at least four tenants in the building across the street to move out.
Neighbour Stephen Hammond is part of a group of Victoria residents trying to get the tent city shut down. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"It's just awful what's going on here, " said Hammond.

"In a country like Canada, we should not be having people living like this. It's horrendous, the conditions people are living in there. How many rats are in there?"

Like Woldring, Hammond blames the province for failing to provide social housing and services for addiction and mental health.
Residents and advocates say the tent city is the result of the B.C. government's failure to provide adequate housing and mental health and addiction services. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"The solution to this crisis is to not move the tent city one block away or to move the people to another place. They are taking the cheapest way out possible. They have completely obliterated social programs in this province."

University of Victoria nursing professor Bernie Pauly is a regular visitor at the tent city. She's also one of 100 local academics who signed a letter in May urging the province to abandon its legal efforts to evict the campers and to instead focus on longer-term housing solutions.
University of Victoria nursing professor Bernie Pauly is among those pushing the province to allow the tent city to remain. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"Until we see housing for everyone we will continue to see tent cities, because they are a better alternative than being in a doorway," said Pauly.

Poverty protest

Coincidentally, the B.C. housing minister is hosting Canada's federal, provincial and territorial housing ministers in Victoria this week to plot a course for future housing investments.

The federal minister responsible for housing, Jean-Yves Duclos, was shouted down by protest leaders as he came out to meet some of them at a noon-hour rally today.

Jean-Yves Duclos, the federal minister responsible for housing, speaks to protesters in Victoria. (Chris Corday/CBC)
Later, several dozen protesters carrying signs and chanting "Housing now" blocked the entrance to the Grand Pacific Hotel, where the meetings were happening, as they demanded to deliver a letter to the ministers.    

Regardless of when the judge finally decides to issue an order to close the tent city down, several protestors told CBC News they feel they have already scored several key wins, such as the several hundred new social housing units.

Protesters gathered outside a hotel in downtown Victoria where housing ministers from across Canada were meeting. (Chris Corday/CBC)
Pauly agreed.

"I sometimes feel like we have amassed this huge pile of evidence about high housing costs and low vacancy, and tent city was the flame."

About the Author

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a National Reporter in Vancouver, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

With files from Chris Corday