A group of Campbell River’s homeless took both city officials and homeless advocates by surprise when they erected an impromptu protest camp on the lawn of city hall Thursday evening.
“I had no idea. This is an initiative they’ve taken on themselves,” said Paul Mason, program manager at the Campbell River Housing Resource Centre. “But I’m not shocked. There’s nowhere for them to go. Wherever they go, they get moved on.”
The camp broke up Sunday, after the homeless delegation secured delegate status at the upcoming June 22 meeting of city council.
The protesters are calling for the city to get more involved in solutions to what they see as an escalating crisis for the homeless since the closure of the extreme-weather shelter in March.
In addition to the loss of the secure overnight sleeping shelter, provincial funds that provided a free breakfast program were tied to the shelter and are no longer available.
“The loss of that funding did provide some financial challenges for a variety of organizations,” Mayor Andy Adams said Friday afternoon. “Today was the first time we knew about that. I’m not sure we’re in a position, financially, to do anything about it, but council does consistently lobby on behalf of support organizations for federal and provincial funding.”
Patricia John, who organized the protest camp, said a year-round, low-barrier shelter is crucial to the safety and well-being of Campbell River’s street people.
Such a shelter was identified as a need by the recently disbanded Homelessness Coalition, which will be replaced by a community based committee funded in part through Island Health.
“A lot of funding and resources have been cut short,” said John. “The main one is the breakfast, but also we need an emergency shelter. Anywhere we sleep we get kicked out or run off. It’s getting harder for us all the time.”
John said the tipping point that led her to take action was the death in late April of Florence Jean Drake. John said she found Drake, a friend and fellow homeless woman, on the ground in an alley behind Chances Casino.
“She was still alive,” said John. “But before the emergency workers could help her, she passed.”
John rallied a small delegation of homeless to check out tents from the Radiant Life soup kitchen Thursday afternoon. With several supporters, including Radiant Life Church paster Art Van Horst, they pitched four tents on the sloping lawn in front of city hall as staffers departed at the end of the day.
“We’re trying to find a positive solution to alleviate the homeless problem,” said Von Horst. “The city needs to be part of that solution.”
They campers said they would stay at city hall until the mayor came out to meet with them and address their concerns.
But Adams was just returning from a 10-day trip to China and spent much of Friday in previously-scheduled meetings.
Further, half of council was away at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ annual convention in Edmonton, including Ron Kerr and Michele Babchuk, the two councillors who served on the recently-disbanded homelessness coalition.
The camp was allowed to stay for three nights, and a public works employee even came to turn off the sprinklers Thursday night to keep the protesters from getting soaked. Police also arrived Thursday, but kept to the perimeter and did not confront the campers.
“They were just monitoring us, making sure we were all right,” said John.
A number of supporters arrived, bearing food and playing music. More food was brought for breakfast Friday morning, when John and a small delegation met with city clerk Peter Wipper. In the absence of the mayor and council, Wipper walked the protesters through the steps to appear as a delegation before council June 22.
John called the meeting a positive step, but said the camp would remain into the weekend to make a statement.
“We would like to see more done,” she said. “We want our voices heard. We have nothing but what we need for survival, and that’s being taken away.”