Note: This article has been updated to include statements from the City of Victoria.
City of Victoria bylaw and Victoria Police officers attended the site of a community care tent and showers donated by supporters at Beacon Hill Park to dismantle those structures Friday morning.
“They were taking apart the community care tent and putting it all in a dumpster bin… There were tons and tons of donations from the community… they took all that out and threw it away,” said supporter and Victoria resident Gina Mowatt, in an interview with Victoria Buzz.
“The showers we built and an 800 gallon cistern full of clean drinking water, [they] poured that all out too. They took apart the showers and put them in a bin.”
Videos and photos uploaded on social media Friday morning confirm accounts of bylaw officers tearing down the community care tent and showers while Victoria Police stood by.
“City of Victoria Bylaw was conducting bylaw enforcement in Beacon Hill Park this morning. We were there to keep the peace while bylaw conducted enforcement,” said VicPD spokesperson Cst. Cam MacIntyre in an emailed statement to Victoria Buzz.
The community care tent at Beacon Hill Park offers a collection of donated items — like food, medical supplies, sleeping bags, and heaters — much needed by unsheltered people, particularly during a pandemic.
While Mowatt says the donations in the community tent were thrown away, City of Victoria representative Bill Eisenhauer says everything was boxed up and is being stored, ready to be returned to the group.
“Perhaps the bin that was used to transport all left an impression it was trash bin, but it was simply a bin for transport all together safely and in an organized fashion,” Eisenhauer added in an email to Victoria Buzz.
However Mowatt and other community members have little trust that the items will be returned to the unhoused population.
“Just from experiences of mass dispossession when homeless encampments are moved, like the one at Pandora (Ave), they confiscated everyone’s things, and people never got them back. Legal observers have documented instances when bylaw took people’s things and never gave them back,” said Mowatt.
“So it’s one thing for the city to say ‘yes we’re impounding it and you’ll get them back’, but it’s another story when the day comes of whether the items will be destroyed or not.”
The tent and showers have been a point of contention for the City of Victoria and, according to Mayor Lisa Helps, their placement violates the conditions of the Beacon Hill Trust, which governs what activities can and cannot take place in the park.
“If the Community Care Tent is not removed, the City could be found to be in violation of the Trust,” reads her blog post.
“Being found in violation of the Trust is serious and could put the park at risk and some important uses that are valued by the community may not be able to continue. The showers installed in the park fall into the same category.”
However community members and volunteers who have donated items to the tent and built the showers say the sudden raid by bylaw and police was unexpected, given that the group was in talks with the city to move the structures.
“The city was in negotiation with the [people who set up the] community care tent,” said Mowatt.
“They had sent us an email expressing an opportunity to move the community care tent and showers to another location. A lot of the folks that were involved with that were confused about why bylaw officers dismantled the structures.”
Witnesses say one person was also injured during an arrest by Victoria Police at the site.
“A woman assaulted a police officer while we were in Beacon Hill Park,” said Cst. MacIntyre. “She was arrested for assaulting a police officer and transported to cells, where she was then released, with the investigation ongoing.”
However witnesses on the ground have a different account of what happened.
“They were standing and the cops were trying to get by them. The cops were pushing them and so they put their arm out to protect themselves,” said Mowatt.
“When they put their arm out, the cops grabbed them and put them on the ground and arrested them for assaulting a police officer—which they didn’t do.”
The individual is currently in hospital, being treated for a broken elbow. The injury was present before the arrest, but witnesses say the arrest made it worse.
The events of the day have eroded the group’s trust in the City of Victoria, according to Mowatt.
“The community care tent wasn’t just about people giving out food, it was about the larger community in Victoria showing the people who are unhoused that we care about them,” she said.
“If there’s anything we learnt from this, it’s that any conversations we’re having with the city is a waste of time. So we’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing.”
City of Victoria spokesperson Bill Eisenhauer says bylaw and staff have been trying to find a solution by moving the structures but no agreement was reached.
“City Bylaw officers and other staff have had many discussions over the past few weeks with the individuals operating these unauthorized structures to offer to assist with possible solutions, including exploring alternative locations outside the park to establish these services,” said Bill Eisenhauer.
“They have simply declined to work with us to find an alternative solution, leaving us no choice but to remove the structures today.”
However Victoria city councillor Sarah Potts took to Instagram on Friday to denounce the dismantling of the facilities, adding that she had been in active talks with the community to find a solution.
Eisenhauer also added that Beacon Hill Park residents and community members can apply for a $100,000 grant program established by the city to provide mobile hygiene and other social services to people sheltering outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic.