The tents were up early Wednesday on a pleasant piece of city land on Selkirk Avenue, in the heart of downtown. Sunshine streamed in, a gentle breeze rustled the leaves above and homeless campers, while police and bylaws chatted about what happens next.
People who were without homes had hoped to make the site, next to new condos and Haney Place Mall, their next refuge after a site near Eric Langton elementary was vacated the day before.
But by afternoon, the Selkirk Ave. lot was again vacant and the homeless people had been pushed along, with some ending up on the old site of “the ghetto,” formerly Northumberland Court, on Fraser Street, two blocks off Lougheed Highway.
The property, now vacant, once held a ramshackle collection of nightmarish drug suites and was bulldozed in 2011 after a long enforcement action by the city.
Now, two tents were set up on one corner of the property.
Bert Woldring was one who was planning to spend the night in that spot beneath the trees.
He used to live in an old house, now demolished, on St. Anne Avenue.
But so far, as street outreach workers, politicians and bylaw officers continue to seek solutions for homelessness, no one has found one for Woldring.
He’s been on disability for three years after injuring his hand. He used to have a van, and used to be a cabinet maker.
He’d welcome a permanent place to live, a room or a suite or apartment.
“There’s nothing available,” he said. “We’ve been looking for a long time.
“That’s what we want. We want housing. We want a place to call home.”
He gets $906 a month on disability income, with $375 of that dedicated for housing allowance.
But without a place to live, he can’t get the $375.
And in addition to finding space for people, Woldring says there needs to be a place for homeless people to store their belongings. Otherwise, they quickly lose them without a safe place.
“How do you keep it safe? You end up losing everything,” he said.
Edward Lakes was setting up his tent in the same place after being pushed off the Selkirk Ave. lot. He’s been homeless for two months because medical expenses for his sick wife made it impossible to keep an apartment in Maple Court.
He said homeless people have been threatened to be set on fire with gasoline, and attacked with baseball bats or shot.
The city’s bylaws department has been tough to deal with, he added.
“They’re extremely rude and demanding – ultimatum,” he said.
Get out, they told him, or we’ll take all your stuff. They gave them half an hour or they would back up a dump truck.
“The RCMP have been great,” he said.
While he was talking, a bystander showed up and took a photo.
“You won’t be there tonight,” she said.
That’s a common reaction, said Lakes.
Later that evening, at about 6 p.m., three guys rolled up in a pickup truck and tore down one of the tents and told them to leave in two hours, said John McKenzie whose apartment overlooks the area.
And by later that evening, the homeless had gone.
“The homeless people, they listen to those people because they know the consequences. We all know who runs our neighbourhood.”
McKenzie he wasn’t endorsing such an approach, but “It’s amazing how effective the other side gets things done.”
He also wants to know why the city no longer requires the property to be fenced, as it was after Northumberland Court was demolished.
Tracy Scott, who used to live in the Cliff Avenue camp, said the city doesn’t yet have accommodation for them.
“But in the meantime, we still need a place to sit.”
McKenzie said homelessness is a result of the federal and provincial governments abandoning their responsibilities.
“We’ve got to find them a place. We can’t have this … in our neighbourhood.”