A woman carries a bucket filled with water on a warm, breezy night in downtown Nanaimo, while dogs roam among the dozen of tents that have popped up on vacant municipal land across from Port Place mall.
On one side of the site, swearing can be heard. On the other side, a couple hugs, expressing joy to finally have a “safe place.” Meanwhile, a handful of people can be seen standing on a parking garage overlooking tent city.
“This is what we have to deal with every single night,” said Mercedes Courtoreille, who is not homeless but an advocate for those living on the land, now dubbed Discontent City.
Since mid-May, the vacant land, once the site of a proposed multimillion-dollar arena, has been home for more than 200 settlers.
It started when a group of people cut through the gate surrounding the property, located on 1 Port Drive at Esplanade and Front Street.
The camp and its organizers, including Courtoreille, are the subject of a City of Nanaimo petition in the Supreme Court of British Columbia, which calls for a statutory injunction to shut down Discontent City. The city cites the camp’s illegal formation, numerous health and safety issues, and a surge in reported crime in the area as some of the reasons to shut it down.
A response to that petition by a legal team representing the campers argues the camp is doing more good than harm, provides a safe space for vulnerable individuals and is a better solution than what is currently being offered by the city. The response includes more than 60 affidavits in support of tent city.
Less than 72 hours before a scheduled two-day hearing, Courtoreille told the News Bulletin it would it would be a “travesty” for the courts to rule in the city’s favour. She said Discontent City is a place that serves to protect people from the “daily” displacement.
“Tent city has served as a survival space,” she said. “But outside of that it has also served as a political statement. Everybody in here, they are political actors just by living here. They are fighting against capitalism and colonialism.”
Courtoreille said the city fails to provide enough services or options for people experiencing homelessness.
The camp’s residents, she said, aren’t overly concerned or afraid of what might happen to them or where they are going to go if they lose the court case.
“It’s not the end. We will figure it out,” Courtoreille said.
While Discontent City organizers and residents may feel the homeless camp is doing more good than bad, there is a very different feeling from some of those living nearby.
In late May, roughly a week after Discontent City sprung up, Nanaimo resident Tamara Treit was stuck in traffic with her teenage daughter and a line of cars behind her near Port Place shopping centre.
That’s when, according to Treit, a group of five or six people from Discontent City suddenly appeared in front of Treit’s sport utility vehicle.
“They were mulling around like something out of The Walking Dead,” she said. I just hit the horn. I needed to move,” she said.
Treit said the group all began banging on her vehicle and yelling immediately after she honked at them.
Feeling scared and panicked, Treit said she hit the gas and drove off, nearly hitting them.
“I floored it,” she said. “They were drumming on my car and we were freaked out.”
The Cameron Island resident’s story is just one of dozens of incidents involving residents living and commuting near Discontent City, which was established in mid-May and is now home to more than 200 settlers.
Treit, whose condo unit overlooks Discontent City, also happens to be one of 21 individuals who have submitted affidavits supporting the City of Nanaimo’s petition to have Discontent City removed. She said since the incident, she and many other residents of Cameron Island are terrified, especially at night.
“As soon as it goes dark, it is a completely different story,”she said, adding that there are nights where she can hear sirens and see flashing lights of emergency vehicles attending Discontent City at all hours of the night.
It is the aggressive panhandling and following and the rude attitudes and frequent thefts that have residents upset, according to Treit, who said there have been endless thefts from vehicles around Cameron Island and Port Place mall since the camp was established.
“Our cars get broken into a minimum of two to three times a week. It’s routine now. It’s something we expect,” she said.
Treit said she has compassion for those who are truly homeless, but wants Discontent City gone and is hoping the courts rule in the city’s favour. Should the camp remain in place, Treit said she’ll likely move her family elsewhere.
“If this is going to be the same this time next year, we’re going to list the place,” she said.
Karen Fry, the city’s director of public safety, said plans are in place regarding Discontent City no matter the outcome of the hearing, but she wouldn’t disclose any additional details. She said the situation has been challenging and her main concern is that a fire will break out on the site.
“We are down if not daily, every few days, trying to minimize the risk,” Fry said.