Since the start of November, an encampment on a lawn outside the Victoria courthouse has swollen from a few tents to several dozen and has become home to 100 or more people.
Norm Ruble, 32, is one of them. He's been in the tent city since the beginning and says it beats living away from the city centre in isolated parks, where the police enforce a city bylaw that requires tents to be taken down at 7 a.m. each morning.
"I'm going to choose the group outside of the courthouse every time," he said.
Ruble said he's been living outside for about a year and a half. Before that, he was housed in a building run by the Victoria Cool Aid Society for people who are hard to house, but that ended badly.
He regularly butted heads with the group's employees, he said, over what seemed to him like arbitrary rules. "Random stuff, [like] saying friends of mine can't bring their backpacks upstairs, to my house," he said.
Ruble said one day a housing employee believed him to be under mental duress and called the police. "When they entered my house they pretty much grabbed me right away and said 'stop resisting' and threw me around, punched me in the head, dropped knees on my chest. I had fractured ribs from that."
The officers claimed they thought Ruble was reaching for a knife, Ruble said. When it went to court, the judge sided with the officers. Ruble was found guilty of "willfully resisting or obstructing a peace officer," and his sentence included a ban from being within a block of any Cool Aid properties. A spokesperson for Cool Aid took questions but did not respond by publication time.
Camping on public property has been legal in Victoria since a 2008 court ruling found it unconstitutional to prevent the homeless from sleeping on public grounds or erecting shelter to protect themselves when there are not enough shelter beds available.
The bylaw requiring tents to be taken down during the daytime -- which the city passed following the court ruling -- doesn't apply at the courthouse, however, since the location belongs to the provincial government and is treated as private property.
As the tent city has grown, it has become a community. The rough edges among the residents are visible, but so are their caring and concern for each other. A recent meeting included pitches to help one resident who'd had his money stolen in the camp, and another who needed to buy a plane ticket east to visit his sick mother.
When the province opened a new 40-bed shelter in an existing building on Yates Street run by the Our Place Society, few from the tent city chose to make the move.
The tent city has also attracted the attention of the wider community. On Friday, visitors to the camp included police officers, a social worker, an official from the ministry of children and family development, and a person from Cool Aid, which provides housing, shelters and other services. People from the church across the road came to announce there would be coffee and hot chocolate available.
While there's much discussion about what to do about the tent city, the views among those who live there vary. Many say there's a need for income assistance rates for shelter to be raised so that they are in line with what rents actually cost, and for governments to fund more affordable housing options. But there's also a strong call for self-determination, for not preventing people from looking out for themselves.
The Tyee recently sat down with Ruble to talk about how he came to be living in the tent city, what he likes about it, why he'd still prefer a home indoors, and what he thinks would help him and others achieve that goal.
How long have you been living in Super InTent City?
Since about a week before it truly started into tent city. I'd been camping here on and off all summer. Then when it was learned by a few people that it was Crown land and that we were able to camp there without being shooed away at 7 a.m. -- oh God, those 7 a.m. wake up calls were horrible -- then people just started flocking.
How did you learn you could stay on the site?
The sheriff. The sheriff told us, "This is Crown land. They can't actually come here and tell you to go." [Before that], the cops came every single morning, 7 a.m., to wake us up and get us out of there when they weren't allowed to. It shocked me. I was like, "What? They're not allowed to [make us move]? Really."
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Vancouver. I was born [in Victoria], then moved to Van at a very young age, and grew up in Vancouver for most of my life. Maybe 20 years in Van.
The first time you started sleeping outside, how did you end up there?
That was actually a self-choice. I chose to become homeless because well, I was just sick and tired of life the way it was for me, and honestly it's very, very freeing when you become homeless for the first time. Not needing to pay rent on anything, not needing to worry about having to work for this, work for that. If you go hungry in Victoria, you really have to be stupid, because there are so many things that are available to the homeless here. I'm also better dressed than I ever was when I was working.
I've just had more expensive, nicer clothes, an abundance of them, here being homeless than I did when I was working. Working, you'd think about money, think about this, think about that. Here you get handed RDS hoodies, leather jackets. I got this; it's a brand new Guess leather jacket, absolutely free. [It was] just a hand-me-down from somebody who donated it.
When you say you didn't like how your life was before, how do you mean?
Just always stressing on money, always having worries about this and that. I'd also just been charged with uttering threats. That caused me to lose my security job... For the line of work I was doing, yeah, [you] couldn't really have a record for it.
Were the threats related to what you were doing on the job?
No, not at all. It was completely unrelated.
One of the questions I originally had for you was about what you see yourself needing. When you talk about feeling free, I'm not sure the question makes sense. So I'll put it this way: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
I hope I'm in a house somewhere. [Feeling free] was only what it felt like when I first became homeless. When you first become homeless, it feels very freeing, but after so many years being homeless, on the street and what not, no, I want a house. I want a house again. This is great for now, but we all know this tent city's not going to last, then from my point of view it's going to be right back to 7 a.m. wake-up calls.
So what are the downsides of living outside, aside from the early mornings?
Where to start? Hauling all your stuff around all the time. Worrying about your stuff. And whether you accumulate too much and can't go into certain places, to certain friends' houses because of all the stuff you have. And then even if you're able to leave it somewhere, it's worrying about that being stolen from you. Oh man, just always worrying about your stuff. Having a house, you don't worry about your stuff, it's all locked up.
Why do you say the tent city can't last?
I'm just thinking realistically, because the last several tent cities that emerged here in Victoria didn't last nearly as long... It still surprises me they haven't right kicked us out. When I was in the last tent city here, which was in Centennial Square [during Occupy Victoria in 2011], the cops taped off a block all around Centennial Square and they stormed in at night. They stormed in at night and they just tore tents down, kicked us all out right then and there. There was not even time to pack your tent up.
In terms of getting from where you are to getting housed, what do you see as the route for that? How does that happen?
More subsidized housing. In just walking around the city, Oak Bay and all around, I've seen so many abandoned houses and abandoned apartments and empty apartments. So much empty housing here, it could easily accommodate all the homeless that we have here and then some. But pretty much it's the subsidized housing. And nothing like how Cool Aid has it.
What's wrong with how they do it?
Well, for starters, when I was living at 710 [Queens, run by Cool Aid], they're technically classified as a motel [so] they're allowed to kick you out with 24 hours notice... I would want [a home covered by] the Residential Tenancy Act. Have rights, whereas with Cool Aid you don't. You basically have to bend to their whim or face the street. Don't get me wrong though. There are some wonderful, wonderful people who work at Cool Aid. Wonderful people who really should be working with low-income people, they're meant for their jobs. They do wonderful work.
Can you give me an example?
A good example, there's a guy named Billy who works at 710 Queens. He's helped me out on so many occasions. Anywhere from getting to the hospital to just someone to talk to. That's sometimes pretty crucial, just having someone there just to chat with.
Anything else that would make it easier to find a home indoors somewhere?
Most landlords from what I've noticed, just looking at apartments online and what not, they have their apartments just out of reach of low-income [people]... Two people on low income, for the rental portion of their cheques, can make up to $750. I commonly see places at $800, or even when they are at the $750 bracket, it's put in big bold letters, "Only one person." That again puts that house just out of reach.
Are you still in touch with your family?
Yeah, my mom came down to see me earlier this week, as a matter of fact. She took us to Floyd's [diner]... She was sure surprised to see that many tents. She thought it would be a little bit smaller, but it's quite a good size. And I still see new tents popping up here and there. Lots and lots of people. It was guesstimated two people per tent on average, but I would put that at like three to four on average. And you've probably seen some of those super tents, that one big ass tarp that have like three or four tents under it.
Where do you figure all these people come from?
I know there are homeless living all over the Island really, like Nanaimo, all that sort of thing. I would think they heard about it up there... Looking at all the new faces, at all the people, I'd say that it is starting to become quite the magnet. If the city would just buy like an empty parking lot, or just one of the empty lots and set up there, that would also be a fixer, too. Just giving someone a place where they can permanently be and not have to be moved every morning is huge.
Do you see it as a step towards housing? Sometimes the politicians are reluctant to be seen to support tenting, saying we need to work towards more permanent solutions.
They always say that, but then it's like, "That's just because we're a first world country." But if you look at all the third world countries, they all have slums. It might not be the ideal or what they would hope or want for, but it is a solution. As crappy as that may be, it works for all those other cities... It lets people live a little better as far as I can see and imagine. I've never actually truly been to one of those slums or low-income districts of a third-world country, so I can't say from first-hand experience.
There was a death in the camp over Christmas. What can you tell me about that?
That was due to fentanyl and that user being irresponsible. I say that because he, I can only make assumptions, he decided to shoot up some heroin, had fentanyl with it, and you should never, ever shoot heroin alone. I'm not a heroin user, but even I know that. Even I'm not that stupid.
And deliberately mixed fentanyl in?
No, no, no. There's no deliberately mixing fentanyl in with it. It's something it's already pre-mixed with. Whoever sold it used it as a buffer. Not even whoever sold it. It could be from like a bunch of people up the chain just making it extra strong so they can cut it down and buff it up and get a hell of a lot more to make more product... Just so they make more money. He did not deliberately mix that in. A lot of people had dropped the night before. None had died, but lots had dropped. [They'd] required 911, or required the Narcan shot.
How does the drug use in tent city compare to normal street life in Victoria?
Right about the same level. Everyone's addicted. There's no more drug use, less drug use. The addicted will go for what they want.
How big a factor would you say that is in people ending up on the streets or in the tent city?
Well, I would say not that big at all, because there are so many functioning users who you'd never suspect. I've had friends who were able to go to work completely rocked on morphines or whatever their drug of choice is, whatever that may be, they've been able to go to work, work, do their job, come home, get more, be a totally functioning drug addict. Sure, for some people, certain situations, that can be a cause for homelessness, but it's not that big of a factor.
It's ultimately more about money?
It's always money.