From inside Bruce Hansen’s tent, the percussive sound of rain hitting the ceiling is ever-present. To withstand the elements, his tent is nested within another tent, so there is little natural light. Inside, there is a small garbage can, a fabric closet organizer hanging on two zipper pulls, and a foam mattress.
Hansen, 52, is one of several campers in a roving tent city which has come to Saanichton Green Park in Central Saanich. Since their first appearance Wednesday morning, the camp has grown from three tents to six.
The camp has made headlines across the capital region, notably in Oak Bay where the police have prepared a $3,000 invoice for cleanup that would be served to leader Chrissy Brett if the campers returned there. The campers are raising awareness of housing affordability and homelessness in the region. Brett has not yet returned requests for comment.
Hansen said he’s been with the tent city for 10 or 11 weeks. In the summer, he was camped out in Beacon Hill Park and he said park workers left him alone because he kept his camp clean and was hidden away. But when he returned one night, his things was gone.
“I didn’t know if I had been robbed or if the people who looked after Beacon Hill had finally moved me or what, so I made some inquiries and it turns out the police found the camp and they threw everything out,” said Hansen. “And that was everything I owned.”
He figured there was safety in numbers and joined the roving tent city “for security purposes,” later adding that moving every few weeks was better than moving every day.
Hansen said he used to work as a pipeline foreman and heavy equipment operator in Alberta, but lingering problems with depth perception (his retina detached in a Shawnigan Lake bar fight when he was “just a kid”) meant he could no longer work dangerous jobs in the oil patch. He’s also done some construction work “under the table” and he said he would consider flipping burgers even though it wouldn’t be his first choice. However, he said it was hard to look for work in his current state.
“I think that’s obvious. Just to be able to cook your own food and put on clean clothes and not be soaking wet and cold. And from there you feel a lot better about yourself. You feel like going out to look for work,” he said.
“In this situation, you know, it looks like it’s pouring rain, you just want to go back inside your little tent and stay as warm as you can, you know? No one’s going to hire you looking like this.”
He said he last had a roof over his head last year, in an illegally subletted room in Cook Street Village, but he was soon evicted.
“Being able to wake up and have a shower and get cleaned up, feel clean and not having to rely on an outhouse. And even an outhouse for us is a luxury. A lot of places we don’t even have that.”
He is grateful that Central Saanich District staff provided the portable toilet, saying “it was like Christmas.”
Hansen said that on their way over, campers were talking about the sort of reaction they’d receive in Central Saanich. He said that while he thought people would be surprised, “they’re not going to be as vocally ‘anti-tent city’ as other places we’ve been.”
He said that in Langford, some campers felt threatened. They were situated near a bar, which he thought had something to do with it.
“People attempted to tear our tents down. Someone threw a bottle or a rock at someone, I’m not sure. Hit one of our campers and he was hurt pretty bad.”
While in Langford, he said people also tried to tip their outhouse over.
In contrast, when in Cadboro Bay, Hansen said someone from the local residents association welcomed the campers, and others would drop off food.
Eric Dahli, president of the Cadboro Bay Residents Association in Saanich, said the association was mindful that they had just come from Oak Bay, where Dahli said “things didn’t go that well.”
The board secretary with the residents’ association, Jerry Donaldson, visited them every morning to check in. Dahli said, “It went well. Never had any issues.”
Dahli said that while there were some residents that did not want them there, they were more understanding when they heard it was a temporary protest camp, not a permanent camp. He said the park was clean after they left.
Dahli said the camp successfully raised awareness of the housing shortage. “Everybody thinks the shortage of housing is somewhere else,” said Dahli.
Hansen’s goal is simple.
“I just want to get a place, the sooner the better,” he said.
“If [people] want to come down and ask a couple questions, feel free to do that. We’re not as scary as they may have thought us to be … We’re not here to cause any harm. We’re people just trying to get something accomplished. And we’re not picking on this part of town for any other reason than it’s their turn. We’re getting every municipality.”
Hansen said he knew that homelessness is not as pressing for the Saanich Peninsula as it is for downtown Victoria, but he felt that the cost of housing the homeless should be spread across multiple municipalities as some homeless people come from the Peninsula.
The first question is, ‘how long are you going to be here?’ and when they find out that we’re only here for a couple weeks…I think they’ll be satisfied and I think that they’ll, if not be totally in agreement with this, they might even support us in some measure.”
“Sometimes these places like Saanichton need to be reminded of the problem, and this is the best way to do that,” he said.