Sitting on a small mat on a sidewalk on Lewis Street, “Sam” kept a wary eye out for police and security guards as he rolled a homemade cigarette.
Sam, who asked that his name not be used and no pictures taken of him, is one of the approximately eight to 10 homeless people who are considered “hard core” that still loiter along Lewis Street after the RCMP and bylaw officers from North Cowichan swept through the neighbourhood on Oct. 24 cleaning up the large mess of debris that had accumulated in the area and urging the 20 to 30 homeless people and others who were gravitating there to move on.
The authorities also installed fencing along the street to keep the homeless from setting up their tents, and have begun frequent patrols of the area to keep order and encourage those still living on the street to move on.
Sam said the strategy seems to be mostly working so far.
“The police are around every morning and private security guards are here a lot more too, these days,” he said.
“There are still people here on the streets, but a lot less than there was a few weeks ago. I’m living in my tent in the woods nearby and I’m not telling anyone where that is. I’m not sure what I’ll do but I’m trying to stay around here because I have no other place to go.”
Lewis Street has had problems with the homeless for years, and authorities have moved in to clear the area at least three times since 2017 after receiving numerous complaints from the residents of the area.
Many homeless people congregate in the Lewis Street area largely because it’s close to the Warmland shelter, but that facility is often too full to accommodate all of them, or they have ongoing drug and other issues that preclude them from using its services.
Fran Stirling lives in the neighbourhood and she said the area had witnessed a “horrendous summer” dealing with the homeless and their issues.
“We’re very happy with the clean up in October and it has been pretty good here ever since,” she said.
“The police, bylaw officers and security guards are even around on the weekends these days, and that was one of our biggest concerns because that was when most problems would occur.”
But Stirling said the new fencing has given the neighbourhood a fortress look.
“The fencing is blocking off an empty lot that has been a nuisance for years, but it looks bizarre and sometimes causes traffic congestion on the street,” she said.
“But the folks living on the street did that too. I’ve heard that the fence is temporary and will come down in March, but all the problems we had last summer started in the spring so I don’t know about the timing.”
Martin Drakeley, North Cowichan’s manager of fire and bylaw services, also said it appears that the situation has improved since the big clean up.
He said the regular patrols by police, bylaw officers and security guards has also helped in efforts to improve the neighbourhood for its residents.
“There are still a few hardcore cases that hang around the Warmland shelter,” Drakeley said.
“We’ve talked to Warmland and, while there’s often bedding or mats available at night for these people, many just don’t want to be inside.”
Drakeley said authorities are not sure where all the people who were urged to leave the area in October went, but conversations with some of the homeless people indicate that many went to Duncan’s Silver Bridge area to live as best they can in the woods, while others have moved on to other municipalities.
As for the fence, Drakeley said there are “soft plans” to remove it in March, but nothing is written in stone and it will likely stay in place for the summer if it’s determined that it is needed.
“The best time to take it down is when there is finally a housing plan in place for these people,” he said.
“Otherwise, they would just begin congregating there again when the fence comes down.”