British Columbia

Victoria city council seeks solutions for 'untenable and unsafe' camp in civic square

Municipal officials are scrambling for options to prevent crime and violence around Centennial Square following a drug trafficking bust at a tent encampment outside city hall this week.

Downtown businesses say their survival is threatened by violence, property crime

Tents outside of Victoria’s city hall on Pandora St. where Victoria Police discovered an alleged drug trafficking ring. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Victoria's city council is looking for ways to "better manage" a homeless encampment in the civic square where police busted an alleged drug trafficking ring this week.

The increased urgency for improvements comes as a local business spokesperson says the survival of nearby businesses is threatened by property crime rates that have exploded since the pandemic pushed more people out of indoor shelters.

"I don't want to prejudge who may be guilty of what, but absolutely, Centennial Square has become untenable and unsafe," Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps told On the Island host Gregor Craigie.

"I will be the first to admit that it's not working for anyone and it's creating unnecessary tension and, very sadly, unnecessary division in our community."

Police announced trafficking charges against 17 people on Aug. 26 who are alleged to have used the tents to sell fentanyl and other drugs. 

Helps convened a closed-door meeting of council Aug. 27 to discuss the city's legal authority to restrict homeless camping during the pandemic and provincial state of emergency.

She said city staff are working on options to "better manage" activity in the square and will bring forward possible policy or bylaw changes to the next council meeting.

In response to interest in reverting to rules that forced campers to pack up each day, she said, "I think that that would be very unwise," she said. "Where are 275 people going to go during the day?"

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said the city is looking for bylaw or policy changes to better manage the problems with homeless encampments which are "not working for anyone." (CHEK News)

Helps says she spent her vacation exploring potential places to temporarily house campers: At University of Victoria facilities, the Canadian Forces Base, the Ogden Point cruise ship terminal, at a former seniors care facility in the Oak Bay neighbourhood. None appear workable. 

One positive development is 24 new spaces coming available at therapeutic recovery community in View Royal. 

"That's for a very specific group of people. That's men who are ready to go into recovery," she said. 

A query of Victoria Police Department's crime mapping tool for March 14 to Aug. 28th shows reports of property and violent offenses during the pandemic. The head of the Downtown Victoria Business Association says crime rates have increased dramatically during the pandemic along with homeless camping in the city core. (Victoria Police Department)

Jeff Bray, the executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, says his members want city council to end camping in the downtown commercial area of Victoria altogether. 

Downtown break-ins up 800 per cent

"We show literally an explosion during the COVID pandemic," Bray said. "It was an 800 per cent increase in break and enters in downtown compared to the same time the previous year."

"It's not always the individuals that might actually be in the tents. It's the criminal element that they also attract around them," he said.

Bray said that in addition to losses from theft and expenses such as replacement of broken windows, he's also concerned about employees in the city core. 

"You have lots of young staff, you know, working their way through university who are in charge of closing up small boutiques and retail shops, who've increasingly been feeling unsafe because of the street disorder, people using drugs right outside their door," he said.

With files from CBC Radio On the Island


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