Homeless campers facing eviction from their makeshift tent city on the grounds of Victoria's courthouse held a block party Thursday, complete with hot dogs, multicoloured balloons and invited guests.
"This feels like a festival here," said Vancouver homeless activist Ivan Drury, who arrived on a bus with 44 other camp supporters from Metro Vancouver.
The party was billed as a show of defiance against the eviction deadline handed to more than 100 people who have been living on the courthouse grounds in the city's downtown core for months.
"What I've heard from the outside is there is a strong sense of community in the tent city here and that community is a space of healing and growth for a lot of people who are survivors of trauma," said Mr. Drury, a spokesman for Alliance Against Displacement.
The party got off to a rough start Thursday morning as police cars arrived with sirens blaring to investigate an alleged assault at one of the camp's tents. But the mood was festive and buoyant in the afternoon as people shared their meals and chanted to drum beats.
Earlier this month, British Columbia's government gave campers a Feb. 25 deadline to move, but police and the province say they'd prefer people leave voluntarily as opposed to a forced eviction.
Housing Minister Rich Coleman said campers were packing up for shelters the province has provided and the situation at the camp will be monitored over the coming days.
"There's about 50 people who've accepted housing, so they'll be moving off and we'll measure it over the weekend to see how it's going," he said.
In recent weeks, the government and social agencies have reached deals on housing for up to 230 people, with shelter space at a former Boys and Girls Club, a seniors' residence and a vacant youth custody facility.
The camp grew from a few tents last spring to dozens as people from alleyways and parks moved to the highly visible manicured grounds of the downtown courthouse.
But only a handful of people were packing ahead of the party.
Benjamin Alexander, 30, from Quebec, was one of the few leaving. He said he is moving to the former youth jail after living in the courthouse camp for almost two months.
He said he considered living in city parks after several confrontations at shelters and the camp, including a beating in which he lost one of his front teeth and suffered facial wounds.
"Look at my tooth, somebody punched me," he said. "Look at my face. Everyday, they are like a wolf pack. You have trouble with one, you have trouble with everybody. I'm getting not psycho, but close to it."
Mr. Coleman said he's most concerned about helping the campers get housing and providing support services for people suffering from addictions and mental health, not provoking encounters with protesters.
"Whatever they want to do, block party or whatever. It makes no difference here because the only people I'm concerned about are the people who need help the most."
Mr. Drury said the government's shelter options are temporary and do not stop homelessness.