Emma Nunn said she has nowhere to go.
Nunn, who has lived in Duncan her whole life, said she has had no luck finding affordable housing in the Cowichan Valley so she spends much of her time in the Lewis Street area, along with between 20 to 30 other people who have no homes, or live in inadequate housing.
She spent Tuesday morning sorting through her belongings preparing to leave as the RCMP and bylaw officers from the Municipality of North Cowichan conducted a sweep of the area to clean it up and urge the homeless and others who gravitate there to move on.
“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,” Nunn said. “At least here there’s some shelter [Warmland House] nearby.”
Bylaw officers and work crews, supported by police from the North Cowichan/Duncan RCMP detachment, spent Monday and Tuesday on Lewis Street clearing the area of discarded clothes, shopping carts, tents and other gear, with much of it tossed into a garbage bin that was brought on site for the task.
On Tuesday morning, something flammable caught fire in the garbage bin that sent acrid smoke along the street, covering people picking though their garbage bags containing their few possessions, before the fire was put out with extinguishers.
Lewis Street has had similar problems in the past, 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.
RCMP Cpl. Kiel Pharis said the police were checking through abandoned clothing and other belongings on the street for stolen property, and were collecting shopping carts to be returned to their owners.
“We’re telling the people that they can’t establish permanent camps here, and then give them a warning and encourage them to move on,” he said. “This is an ongoing social issue.”
Martin Drakeley, North Cowichan’s manager of fire and bylaw services, said bylaw officers were responding to many complaints from the neighbourhood over the last week.
“It’s really not their fault,” he said, referring to the people who were busy going through their belongings. “There are too many people living on the streets these days and it’s getting cold out now. They are being forced to just move on from one place to another.”
Drakeley said North Cowichan and the police have no authority or ability to do anything for the people, other than move them along when they become a problem to neighbours.
He said many congregate in the Lewis Street area 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.
“If they had somewhere to go, that would be great,” Drakeley said.
“But it’s a political issue and I know North Cowichan’s mayor and council are working hard with other local and senior governments to find places for them that will suit everyone.”
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 area.
A recent statement from North Cowichan acknowledged 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”.