Celestine Norris said she feels safe living in her tent on a vacant lot on North Cowichan’s Lewis Street, located between two apartment buildings.
Norris said she has been living on the streets in the Cowichan Valley for more than a year, and recently pitched her tent in the Somenos Marsh area before someone set fire to it.
She said the close proximity to the community her new spot on Lewis Street allows her means that help is nearby if needed.
But the growing tent community on Lewis Street, which had four tents on it as of the morning of Nov. 3, has been drawing the attention of neighbours, the RCMP and the Municipality of North Cowichan.
The land is private property and North Cowichan officials say the owner can’t be found to address the issue of the trespassing campers, which makes efforts to remove the tents complicated.
“I’m not disrespecting anyone by being here, and I’m doing my best to keep the area clean where my tent is set up,” Norris said Friday morning outside her tent.
“It’s not that I can’t afford rent, there’s just nowhere to rent around here. The police and bylaw officers have been here, but I’m not causing any problems and I have nowhere to go. I have been kicked out of the Warmland shelter even though I wasn’t doing drugs.”
The Warmland House shelter is nearby on Lewis Street and manager Dave Street said the facility has beds for those that require them, provided that the clients follow the rules, including that there be no drugs or alcohol on the premises.
“Our doors are open and everyone is welcome here, as long as they are prepared to follow the rules,” Street said.
With the lack of affordable housing in the Valley, along with the ongoing opioid crisis, tent cities have been springing up in a number of local places over the past year.
They include the one in Charles Hoey Park last spring that had to be taken down by police and Duncan bylaw officers after the campers defied a ruling from the Supreme Court of B.C. that ordered the removal of the tents.
But the fact that the lot on Lewis Street is privately owned is raising legal issues around having the authorities move in to take down the tents.
Nelda Richardson, North Cowichan’s manager of building and compliance, said bylaw and RCMP officers have been visiting the site daily since the tents first set up there.
But she said that at this point, the municipality is only monitoring the situation.
“It’s challenging for us because it’s private property and we can’t locate the owner,” she said.
“If we could get in touch with the owner, we could work towards fencing the property or find some other solution to keep the campers out. But we don’t have the jurisdiction to do anything ourselves and we have no tools at this time to deal with this in our bylaws.”
Sgt. Chris Swain, a spokesman for the North Cowichan/Duncan RCMP detachment, said the police have responded to a number of complaints from the public and the municipality in regards to the site.
But he also acknowledged the fact that the land is private property complicates the issue.
“There’s also the fact that issues around homelessness are impacting not just us, but many communities on the Island and the mainland,” he said.
“We’re doing our best to work with all stakeholders to try to find a solution to this.”