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What’s happening at the encampment on vacant land in Sechelt?

The man who built a "tarp mansion" near Hightide shares what it’s like to live there after the District enacted a new vacant land bylaw

A tarp structure erected on a vacant piece of land near Rain City’s Hightide modular housing in Sechelt has been receiving more visits from bylaw officers, but with the Sechelt shelter closed since early February, there are fewer options for homeless people than before. 

Martin Schmidt is one of the five people (and one dog) residing in the structure he built, which he calls a “tarp mansion.” Inside the blue tarp, there is room for up to eight people to have their own private space. A 350-pound wood stove is used for heat instead of an open fire. Schmidt said they only use wood — never garbage — and they try to keep the area clean. 

Schmidt came to the Coast to be close to family after his wife died of cancer, though the couple had been planning to move to Sechelt together. He works as a roofer. 

While the unsanctioned set up at that location has always faced the threat of being removed, on March 9, Schmidt told Coast Reporter they’re being told more often by bylaw and the property owner to leave.

“We're being threatened to be relocated almost every day. And then we hear there's a reprieve and they're not coming and then they're coming again,” he said. 

In November 2022, the District of Sechelt council passed three readings to amend the property maintenance bylaw to add the ability to enforce against unauthorized access to vacant private property. The amendments come with a daily fine of $400 for the property owner, and is enforced on a complaint basis. On Nov. 21, the clear-out of a temporary housing encampment began at an undeveloped lot across from BC Housing’s supportive housing facility on Hightide Avenue. At a December council meeting, the amendments were adopted.

The District of Sechelt could not disclose to Coast Reporter who owns the property the encampment is on. In an email on March 10, the District of Sechelt confirmed the owner has been fined (but would not disclose how much) and is complying. 

When asked how many times bylaw has visited this site since the bylaw amendment came into effect, the district’s response was, “Many times, too many to count. Bylaw attends any time they receive a complaint from the surrounding community. 

“Enforcement action is taken against the property owner, not the encampment. If the property owner requests assistance, bylaw might step in to assist.

“While the District doesn’t quite have its own support services for the people residing on the vacant property, at the end of the day, these are other human beings bylaw and staff and interacting with,” the March 10 email said. “Bylaw generally has good relationships with many of the homeless population in Sechelt. They are familiar with them and try to direct outside supports and assistance to those in need. Officers will provide updates about services and call RainCity outreach if people need assistance. This goes for anyone officers come across not just the residents of this particular encampment.”

Assessing the housing need

Kelly Foley, the Sunshine Coast housing coordinator for Cover the Coast, said she is working with the District of Sechelt, Town of Gibsons and Sunshine Coast Regional District on a needs assessment for housing on the Coast. Part of that process involves meeting with folks including those living at the encampment. Foley said hearing what they’re up against was profound, and the focus needs to be on “treating people with dignity and respect, and recognizing that there are many, many reasons that people are there.

“It’s not this stereotype…[it’s] realizing that many people right now don’t have a choice,” she said. “We need as a community to come up with solutions for that.” 

Foley is applying for funding to conduct a land use study, which would identify and make an inventory of government-owned land that could support different types of housing. If successful, Foley said the work could begin in June and be completed by the end of the year. 

Foley said the political support is there, though it’s a daunting task to figure out what needs to be done and how to do it. The needs assessment is expected to be shared with the community in May.

As for the ongoing enforcement efforts, Schmidt said he does not blame the bylaw officers, as they have a job to do and have been helpful. 

When they’re being told they can’t be there, Schmidt said they’re not given other options. The closest suggestion is for the group to move to a section of Crown land under the power lines. 

“But the problem I have with that is that's pretty far away, like you're talking a good half an hour walk, just to be able to get back down. If somebody falls, breaks an ankle, has an overdose of some kind or something happens out there, who's coming to help? We'll go and walk for half an hour to come down here for a meal every day? Like, that's crazy,” Schmidt said. 

Currently the structure Schmidt built is close to the homeless shelter, and services such as the food bank and overdose prevention site. The structure is mostly tucked out of view, and Schmidt said they don’t have their belongings stolen as often.

Since the shelter in Sechelt closed after a fire and extensive water damage in early February, there are fewer temporary accommodation options in the area. Schmidt said he would not want to stay in a shelter, citing concerns for theft and a lack of privacy.

“My tent is my home. It's not some organization's place to let me stay in, where I have to answer to them and live by their rules,” Schmidt said. “It's the same thing to me … as if I was renting an apartment.”

Ideally, Schmidt would like a piece of land, about 100 square feet in size. Next to the Wharf Avenue homeless shelter are two plots of grass. 

“I could set up right there and be completely happy, closed in and right close. To me, it's still them helping the homeless people, if technically that's what we are.

“All I need is a small, peaceful piece of land that I can keep my structure on and keep the people that need to be warm and a little bit safer, give them someplace to be.”

He’d like to tell people on the Coast that “just like everybody else that's on the Sunshine Coast — no matter where they come from, whether they were here their whole lives or whether they've just recently got here — that we’re people too and we have a right to live here and call this our home.”

“We're not out to hurt anybody. We're not out to be an eyesore to anybody or anything. We just want to be able to do our own thing and keep our families and our friends safe, the same way everybody else does.”

As for safety concerns from the public, Schmidt said incidents “can happen anywhere.” (The Sunshine Coast RCMP did not respond to Coast Reporter’s request for information about the encampment site.)

For now, Schmidt said he’ll stay where he is as long as he can. “If I’ve got to move from here, I will pack everything up. And I will rebuild somewhere else and try a different location.

“With what I built and with the people that live with me, I have people that depend on me right now, people that I care about and I care for that I can help here. I've got a little bit of a purpose here.”