The atmosphere on Pandora Avenue changes daily, but tensions rose with the approach of the May 20 deadline set by the provincial government for moving people out of encampments and into hotels.
There’s a mix of people who want to go to the hotels and will gladly accept the housing, while there are others, like Sandy Fisher, who don’t want to move.
“My intention is to stay until I’m satisfied that every homeless or destitute person in Canada is properly, appropriately housed and supported,” he says. Fisher sat down with Black Press Media just outside a few large tents within the metal fencing — which some people on the streets have dubbed ‘cages’ — that’s been decorated with twigs, a mirror and a Narcan kit.
“My take on it is that there is no pandemic, it’s quite simple,” he says between puffs of a cigarette. According to Fisher, everyone on Pandora has been tested for COVID-19 and everyone has come back negative.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control has tested 17,820 people on the Island but does not break it down by community or release who has been tested.
Fisher compares the hotels that are being used as temporary shelters to filing cabinets — “these people are just files, getting filed away.” He says when the pandemic first hit “we were generally ignored by the municipality,” adding that when Our Place closed its doors sanitation become a big problem, with people having no washrooms or showers available to them.
“In fact, I’m probably safer out here — we established social distancing right away as soon as Our Place closed,” he says. “We had a little circle of friends sharing doobies, and we always had been, so I considered these people to be in my germ bubble already.”
For Shae Smith, who camps in Beacon Hill Park, the pandemic has exacerbated the stigma that people living on the street already felt. Smith created a podcast, called The Homeless Solution, that he records with a few other people who live on the street as well, as a way to help voice their concerns.
“In a society where bullying is not accepted, boy I feel pretty bullied as a homeless person,” says Smith. “I’m telling you it’s time for people to increase the love and realize that homeless people are people.”
Smith’s podcast covers topics from ‘Why do homeless people act so crazy anyway and why should I care,’ to publishing his views of the Victoria Police Department. The topic of moving the homeless into motels has also been addressed on the podcast.
“I liken it to people who are [experiencing] a mass air-raid, that’s how I feel honestly — that’s the security level,” he says. “I feel like tomorrow, my home could be destroyed by whatever means.”
Smith calls enforcement of the push to get the homeless into hotels a “massive human rights violation.”
“What they’re doing to evict or force to move or move without consulting is a human rights violation,” he says.
Shane Simpson, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, said in a press conference on May 20, that 308 people living in Topaz Park and along Pandora have been moved into hotels, while another group of about 30 remains.
Simpson says the expectation is to have everyone out by the end of the day. The next steps will be to hand the site back over to the City of Victoria, so it can be “secured” and cleared.
Smith says he applied for a room in a hotel but never got one. He believes the government will try to force those remaining on the streets into the Save-On-Foods Memorial Arena, which he says is a “soft incarceration prison.”
Colin Spikes, who lives on Pandora, has been featured on the podcast multiple times. He says at the beginning of the pandemic he went to Topaz Park, but says it looked too much like a “homeless cemetery” for him to want to stay there.
On Monday evening, about 12 people created a blockade at the intersection of Pandora and Vancouver Street, which lasted about 30 minutes. According to Smith and Spikes, there could be more blockades depending on what happens May 20.
“We’ll probably end up caging it off and making it difficult to move us, so all this fence that they put in — when life gives you lemons you make lemonade,” says Spikes.
But Fisher doesn’t think it’ll come to that.
“Honestly I think they’re just going to back away quietly,” he says. “They’ve already done it once, they didn’t enforce the order on May 9 because they realized they weren’t going to get it done in time and at this point, they’re going to have to realize that again.”
As for Smith, the solution to homelessness is an open and honest dialogue.
“Figuring out the needs of the individual and helping that person get the individual help they need, I think that would be a lot better than just having a blanket [approach].”