Homeless people on Lewis first became a public issue in the fall of 2017.
The first reports of people living in tents there, and disrupting the daily lives of the local residents, began a few months after the City of Duncan and the RCMP dismantled a tent city in the middle of Charles Hoey Park after it was determined the campers were in violation of a court injunction issued by the Supreme Court of BC.
At the time, there were just a few tents in an empty lot on Lewis Street, but they were already beginning to raise the ire of the neighbours.
Over the next few months, the homeless population in the Lewis Street area continued to grow due in part to the lack of affordable housing in the Valley, along with the ongoing opioid crisis, and the fact that the street is close to the Warmland House shelter.
But the shelter has been operating at capacity most nights as the homeless crisis intensified, and its clients must follow the rules, including that there be no drugs or alcohol on the premises, which many have difficulty in following.
So many homeless people decided to set up their tents close to the shelter so they could still access its showers, laundry facilities and programs without having to stay there.
In December, 2017, police and bylaw officers from the Municipality of North Cowichan descended on the empty lot and other campers that had set up nearby and ordered them to dismantle their tents and vacate the premises.
But, as police and local governments have little authority in these matters, other than to urge homeless people to move on elsewhere, many of those evicted from the site soon returned, along with others.
Bylaw officers, police and clean-up crews again descended on the area in large numbers in July, 2018, for the second time after neighbours called officials complaining of shopping carts full of personal items, tents, discarded needles and garbage of all kinds all over the street.
“There are disturbances here almost every night, but if you say anything to these people, they become abusive,” said one resident at the time.
“Bylaw officers from North Cowichan and the police come by almost on a daily basis, and the people are sometimes moved away, but when the authorities leave, they come right back again.”
The authorities, once again, ordered all the campers out of the area and cleared the area of garbage.
But many returned and the issues escalated before officers moved in yet again in October, 2019, with a large garbage bin, a tractor to help clear garbage and a large number of police and bylaw officers.
After removing the people, they spent two days on Lewis Street in efforts to, once again, clear the area of discarded clothes, shopping carts, tents and other gear.
The authorities then took the unprecedented step of installing fencing along Lewis Street to keep the homeless from setting up their tents, and began frequent patrols of the area to keep order and encourage those still living on the street to move on.
The fencing and extra vigilance in the area has had some success, but there are still homeless people there, much to the disgruntlement of many neighbours.
“I’ve been kicked out of everywhere else I’ve tried to stay, but I’ll probably come back when the police and bylaw officers go away,” said one of the homeless people as he was urged to move on in October.
“At least here there’s some shelter [Warmland House] nearby.”
Martin Drakeley, North Cowichan’s manager of fire and bylaw services, acknowledged that the ongoing raids are not really dealing with the problem
“There are too many people living on the streets these days and it’s getting cold out now,” he said in October.
“They are being forced to just move on from one place to another.”
The City of Duncan, Municipality of North Cowichan and the Cowichan Valley Regional District have been working with BC Housing to develop a plan for a low-barrier shelter in the Lewis Street area to help deal with the problem.
However, a statement from North Cowichan during the fall stated that discussions with BC Housing about low-barrier housing in the area have been going on for some time, but “there is no progress to report at this time”.