Displacement is expensive: Government rent-a-fence and security cost $600,000

After Tent City was shut down, the B.C. government rented fences and hired security to close off the property for ten months, at a cost of $600,000. That’s interesting for two reasons. First, you can buy lots of things for $600,000 – say, this five-bedroom home in Colwood – and second, they hid those costs from reporters and the public.

According to emails I received through a Freedom of Information request (see below), when the B.C. government was preparing a “volunteer day” to show off the Tent City playground, government employees were debating what they would say the “estimated budget of the playground” was. Here are the numbers they used, when they initially pegged the cost at $963,000:

“Playground ($289K), Remediation ($350K), Landscaping ($223K), Landscape Architect ($52K), WSI Project Mgmt ($49K).”

The $289,000 in “playground” costs included at least $230,000 in donations that the government wasn’t actually paying for. As a result, the communications director told their colleagues they were going to “change the playground cost to $50K.” For those playing along at home, the new cost to government should have been $724,000. Throwing math to the wind, however, the director said, “We’ll go with $760K.”

But there was still something missing. Nearly half a million dollars, in fact, that was “Not included” in those costs. Specifically: “Security + fencing @$60,000 monthly x 8 months (aug-march 2017) = $480k.”

One of multiple emails showing fencing and security costs were “Not included” in playground budget estimates. Source: FOI request, p. 20.

One of multiple emails showing fencing and security costs were “Not included” in playground budget estimates. Source: FOI request, p. 20.

In case they were asked how much the playground cost, staff eventually decided they should say $770,000 (p. 74). Staff said that number “includ[ed] fencing,” but given what the emails show about specific costs, that number could not have included the $480,000 spent on fencing and security from August to March.

Adding those numbers together, the full budget for the playground project was at least $1.25 million as of March 2017 — a fact they seemingly had no intention of disclosing. If you add the extra two months of fencing before the playground opened in May, the total cost rose to around $1.37 million.

The communications team were planning to wipe 40 per cent of the playground costs off the books, with no reason provided. Fencing the property during construction was certainly part of the project cost, but in the press release about the “volunteer day” the government said they had spent only $50,000 on the project – 3.6 per cent of what the government actually spent to go from Tent City to playground.*

What does $60,000 a month of fencing and security look like?

Fencing around the Victoria court house property, April 2017.

Fencing around the Victoria court house property, April 2017.

Damn it, fence! You had one job! And now I hear children were playing on the site before it was open? Your ass is on the line, fence.

The full $1.37 million cost for the playground matters, but more importantly, displacement comes with enormous human costs, as people are forced to search for safer spaces. The province wanted to end what it considered a ‘bad news story,’ and the fact that they were willing to pay anything to permanently displace people is telling.

Government dodges its own questions
I’ve said before that I think playgrounds can be great, and it’s true. Have you seen the zip line in Beacon Hill Park? The future is here! Unfortunately, the B.C. government built the court house playground not for children and families, but to support a campaign to keep campers from returning to the site. I believe the evidence makes that clear, but the government has done its best to avoid saying displacement was the driving force behind the project.

Before the “volunteer day” event took place, government staff decided to get ready for some questions they thought they might be asked. Anything about homelessness seemed to make them incredibly uncomfortable.

“Did you choose a playground to keep the homeless away?” they asked themselves. Staff suggested four bullet points in response, none of which mentioned homeless people, and all of which dodged the question.

Luckily, they provided a clearer answer when predicting another question: “Will the homeless be able to camp there?”

“No, there will be no overnight camping allowed on the site. The City of Victoria has a bylaw against overnight camping in playgrounds. [The city bylaw does not apply to provincial property; see below]** In addition, the playground will be closed from dusk until dawn, with signage stating this.” And who will protect the playground in the night? “It will be up to the Victoria Police Department to enforce the bylaw,” said the government.

Or in other words, yes, the playground was chosen because it would let them “keep the homeless away.” And they’ve got the signs to prove it.

"Entry Prohibited Sunset to Sunrise," Victoria court house playground.

"Entry Prohibited Sunset to Sunrise," Victoria court house playground.

Did the government consider options other than a playground? Did they receive any “other suggestions for the site”? Not according to them. “Discussions with neighbours showed an overwhelming interest in turning the space into a playground. Out of respect for the neighbours, the idea for the playground was pursued” (p. 74).

Permanent displacement was the most ‘respectful’ solution. Who knew? If respect for neighbours was what they were after, it’s interesting that the consultations didn’t seem to include those neighbours’ neighbours — the people that lived at Tent City. Government staff wrote a lot of talking points about how they were offering new housing; however, some of the residents in those facilities now say that they were “lied to”; that the housing has made their living conditions “worse”; and that their “health and wellbeing has been in steady decline” since moving in. Their desire for quality housing was not respected in the same way as their neighbours’ desire for a playground.

Why the government chose to hide the true costs of the playground project is beyond me. Were they embarrassed that they were spending over a million dollars on a project that started as a petition to displace the homeless? Did they think spending $60,000 a month for fencing and security would sound bad in a press release? I don’t know.

What I do know is that the government wasn’t up front about their reasons for building a playground — “to keep the homeless away” — and they weren’t up front with their finances, either. The playground may look nice, but it’s not the good news story the government wants it to be.

I contacted the Ministry of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services for up-to-date totals on the playground budget, including security and fencing. They did not respond by deadline.

*The $350,000 in soil remediation costs were reported in stories about that process; however, I could not find the $480,000 in fencing and security costs reported anywhere. The government also says it spent $1.3 million managing Tent City for the 10 months “between December 2015 and October 2016.” That money is in addition to the $1.37 million spent after Tent City was shut down. 

** Despite the government’s statement, Victoria’s playground bylaw does not apply to the court house property, which is owned by the province.

Stephen Harrison