Good morning everyone,

For the past many months I’ve been spending my Sunday mornings responding one at a time to emails I receive from residents during the week. Because I’m receiving many emails on the same topic with shared concerns and a variety of perspectives, I’ve decided to write back to all of you at once. I’ve read all of your emails and hopefully you will see some of your concerns reflected and responded to here.

This email is long, but I do encourage you to read all the way through! It’s also going to be human and honest, not bureaucratic or communications-speak. This is a really difficult situation we’re in right now, all of us, and it’s going to take our shared humanity and a great deal of honesty, as well as courage to get through it. It’s also going to require ongoing open-hearted conversations.

So as not to repeat myself from August 30th, but to be sure that everyone has as much information as possible, I’ve pasted the email from last week at the bottom. Also, if reading long emails is not your thing, I do a weekly Facebook Live on Friday afternoons. This week’s video is here and above. If you’re only interested in discussions of sheltering in parks, you can skip to 4:15. If you want comprehensive information, please watch the video AND read this email.

First I’d like to say that I so appreciate all of you taking the time to write. I’m heartened that most of the emails are thoughtful and respectful, with good questions, concerns and suggestions. It’s only through thoughtful dialogue that we are going to find our way through this. I thought about excluding those from this response who were swearing or yelling eg. ALL CAPS with LOTS OF EXCLAMATION MARKS!!! 🙂 in their emails, but my job is to be as open as possible with everyone, regardless of what kind of response I might get back.

The thing that is heartbreaking for me, which many of your emails point to, is the tension between two really important things. One the one hand, we need safe spaces for kids (and of course adults too, but many of the emails this week focused on kids) to play and recreate. This is so important for all sorts of reasons from a sense of connection to their place and their neighbourhood, to the obvious benefits of outdoor activity and exercise, to the special need for outdoor play during the pandemic where transmission of infection is much lower. On the other hand, there is the need for people who have nowhere else to go to take shelter. And so the City’s parks have become somewhat of a battle ground between these two important social and human needs.

Many of you have written really heartfelt emails – from neighbourhoods all across the city – about why the park in your neighbourhood isn’t a good place to camp. It’s got a playground, a sports field, it’s close to a residential area. The city has a terrific parks system with great parks in every neighbourhood. None of them are good places for people to be sheltering outdoors. 

But we have a humanitarian crisis on our hands. Some of you have said that you are concerned that people are coming here from elsewhere because Victoria is taking two light of an approach with respect to homelessness. There likely are people who have come here from across the country, there’s no denying that and it tends to happen every summer, anecdotally anyway. 

But the bigger reason we’re seeing an increase of people in our parks is because of COVID. In March, all the shelters in the city had to cut their numbers by almost half because of physical distancing. Not one of them have increased back to their regular numbers since then. Additionally, when we were all told to get into our bubbles and stay there, anyone precariously housed (couch surfing, or staying with relatives, etc) was sent outside. The Province worked very hard and moved about 500 people indoors in April and May. Yet still about 275 people remain outside.

And in terms of during the day and where people will go, pre-COVID, Our Place on Pandora could accommodate hundreds of people indoors, for meals and programming, etc. Now they can have a maximum of 40 people inside. So both at night and during the day, there is literally nowhere for people to go. This is the case across the country. Victoria is not unique (I said this last Sunday too! Sorry for the repeat but it feels really important.) In Toronto, for example, the policy is to allow people to shelter in parks until indoor solutions can be found. Once people are offered indoor alternatives, then the camps are cleared. 

So what are we going to do? The first thing we have to do, as a community is to confront reality. I’ll explain what I mean by this in a moment. The second thing we need to do is to manage the situation better. Council made some decisions this week that will help us to do that. Third, we need earnest advocacy to the federal government to help us (some of you suggested this in your emails, thank you, I’ll put some addresses below). Fourth, we need immediate creative solutions and hard work. Fifth, we need to try to put each ourselves in each other’s shoes.

First – Confront Reality 
When I was the Executive Director of Community Micro Lending, we had a mentor come in and meet with the entrepreneurs on a regular basis as a group. The mentors were successful business people. One evening, one of the mentors shared his story when he was talking about how to build trust with customers. He was running a tech company in Vancouver and had a very big project to deliver to a client in Seattle. Like really big – millions of dollars. And he ran into a snag. His employees came into his office and said that the project was behind, they didn’t know when they were going to be able to get it back on track, there were massive issues with it.

So he immediately got into his car, drove to Seattle and met in person with the CEO of the company he was supposed to deliver the product to. The CEO of course was surprised to see him, but invited him into his office. He sat down and said, “We are going to be late on the project. I can’t tell you how late or when we’ll be able to deliver it. But I needed to come here in person to be totally honest and to confront this reality with you.” The CEO appreciated his honestly and forthrightness. The project was eventually delivered and because of that one interaction, the sheer honesty of the company owner and his ability to confront reality, he got many more contracts in the future with the Seattle company, even though he had really screwed that big one up. 

We have to confront reality as a community. I can’t tell you when the issue of camping in parks is going to be resolved because there is no easy resolution. We’re going to need to continue to live in this difficult situation, to find our way through until help comes, because the City can’t solve the problem alone. There were some glimmers of hope this week from the Premier but we don’t know when the situation we’re in will end and when people will get the housing and supports that many of them need and want. The no camping during the day will be enforced again when the Provincial State of Emergency ends, but we don’t know when this will be. 

Second – Manage the Situation Better
Here is a staff report that was presented to and adopted by Council last Thursday. It is meant to address some of the issues that you’ve been writing to us about. There will be a 10ft x 10ft site for each person sheltering and a buffer of 4m between tents and between tents and sports courts and playgrounds. And a 50m buffer between encampments and schools. This means, for example that in Central Park where there are currently over 70 tents, there will be room for 21 tents. Each park will essentially have a limit to the number of tents based on these spacing guidelines. We will also be hiring 5 additional bylaw officers to help address the issues in parks. Council also gave some funding to the Coalition to End Homelessness to do some work with people living in parks so that they can help to better manage the situation themselves. This might seem to some of you like a strange thing to do, but what we’ve heard through staff and other advocacy groups and from some of the people living outdoors themselves is that they want to be good neighbours and that sometimes it’s just a few people who make it difficult for others. The people living in parks want some agency in determining their own living circumstances so that they can help address the issues. 

Third – Advocate to the Federal Government          
During the pandemic the Provincial government has spent tens of millions of dollars in our region attempting to address pandemic-related homelessness. The federal government has committed $1.3 million to address homelessness during the pandemic. Just like the City, the Provincial government needs help. 

It would be great if people could write to the Minister Families, Children and Social Development, Ahmed Hussen (Ahmed.Hussen@parl.gc.ca) and his Parliamentary Secretary Adam Vaughan (Adam.Vaughan@parl.gc.ca) and talk about the need for federal support to address pandemic-related homelessness in Victoria and across the country. Please stress the urgency of the situation and share some of the stories that you’ve shared with me, with them. 

Fourth – Immediate Creative Solutions and Hard Work
While it’s true that the City didn’t create homeless and can’t end it, we have a role to play. We’ve created the Community Wellness Alliance that I co-chair with Island Health. This group includes Island Health, BC Housing, the Coalition to End Homelessness, the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness as well as city staff in bylaw and the mayor and city manager’s office and representatives from various provincial ministries. We’ve formed a Decampment Working Group and we’ve identified a significant number of indoor spaces that will be available over the next six months. The Decampment Working Group, which I chair is meeting weekly, vacancy by vacancy, person by person, to work on getting people matched with appropriate housing and corresponding supports. There’s a committed and hard working group of people at that table. But it’s very slow work. The good news from the past week is that we moved seven people from outdoors to indoors. 

During my Community Drop In this past week, one resident asked what she could to. I shared this in the chat as it had been recently sent to me by another Victoria resident – it’s called the Block Project and it’s a good idea that residents in Seattle have implemented.  I’m sharing this in case it’s of interest of anyone to follow up with the folks in Seattle. 

Fifth – Put Ourselves in Each Other’s Shoes
One set of shoes: What would it be like to be a young family, or a senior citizen who relies on neighbourhood parks for recreation, exercise well-being, who now feels that their park has been taken away, it feels unsafe. There are strangers living there who they don’t know and who they feel scared of. You feel vulnerable.

The other set of shoes: What would it be like to be living in a neighbourhood park. You don’t have anywhere else to go. You are truly homeless. You’re scared that winter is coming and you’ll still be outside. You don’t have anywhere safe to be, ever, because you have no home to retreat to. You feel vulnerable. 

Thank you for taking the time to wade through this very long email and for your open-hearted generosity as we continue to find our way through this very challenging situation, together.

Lisa / Mayor Helps

Email from Sunday August 30 2020 

Good morning everyone,

I usually spend my Sunday mornings responding one at a time to emails I receive from residents during the week. I did this last Sunday and only made it through a fraction of the emails that had come in over the past few weeks. So this weekend, because many of you have written on similar topics, and so I can be sure to respond in more of a timely way, I thought I’d reply to you all at once. I’ve read all your emails and will make sure that there’s enough information in here to address the concerns you’ve raised. 

This email may be a bit lengthy, but I do encourage you to read all the way through! It’s also going to be human and honest, not bureaucratic or communications-speak. This is a really difficult situation we’re in right now, all of us, and it’s going to take our shared humanity and a great deal of honesty, as well as courage to get through it. It’s also going to require ongoing open-hearted conversations.

I accept responsibility for allowing people to camp in Beacon Hill Park and in parks across the city. We did so based on the guidance of Dr. Henry who sent guidelines to mayors across the Province in June 8th. In case you haven’t seen these, I’m attaching them for you here. 

I acknowledge that this is a really difficult situation for everyone. I know this from the experiences you have shared with me as residents living near parks, or who have kids going to schools near parks where people are camping, or as people who work downtown, or have kids who work downtown. I also know it’s difficult for people living in parks – they have become the objects of frustration, hatred in some cases, anger and derision. A large majority of people living in the parks have filled out housing applications and are on BC Housing’s waitlist; they want to move inside. And it’s not easy for our staff working in the parks – they love their work, they take pride in maintaining the parks for public use and enjoyment; the current situation and all the tension is really hard for them. And it’s not easy for me either, I feel despair that we can’t do more to fix the situation, we can only manage the crisis that has landed on our doorsteps as the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

I also acknowledge that there are no easy answers. At this point there is nowhere to move people to, there are no more indoor or outdoor spaces I can think of to try as temporary indoor solutions after Oak Bay Lodge, UVIC, CFB Esquimalt, and Ogden Point, all of which are unavailable for various reasons. Victoria is not alone. I was talking to a colleague in the City of Toronto recently – there are eight encampments in his riding alone. I also met with the head of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness last week; he tells me there are encampments in cities all across the country. 

So what are we going to do? It’s not working having people living outside in the downtown core. This is putting tremendous pressure on our small businesses many of which are already struggling to survive through the pandemic. In addition, due to the reports released by the police late last week on the concentration of drug trafficking at that encampment and the violence that went along with that trafficking, our Director of Parks has used his authority under the parks bylaw to temporarily close a section of a park, in this case, the areas where people are currently camped. This is effective as of Tuesday September 1st

It’s also not working to have people camping close to schools (South Park as well as the Montessori in Selkirk) or near playgrounds. Children are our collective future. They are also vulnerable residents who need safe places to be and especially safe places to be given the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of being outside. 

Our staff have been looking into what other cities are doing to manage pandemic-related homelessness and they will be bringing a report to Council for our meeting this Thursday that has some new approaches to managing encampments for the duration of the Provincial State of Emergency. This likely includes things like wider buffer zones between tents and playing fields and playgrounds, more space between tents – which will have the effect of limiting the number of tents in a given park, and a prohibition on camping near schools. You can read the report here when it is published – which should be sometime on Monday afternoon. From what I understand, staff will be recommending that these changes are in place as long as the Provincial State of Emergency is in place and that 30 days after the Province lifts the State of Emergency, the regular bylaw will come back into effect, which allows people to shelter overnight from 7pm – 7am. 

I know some of you would like to see an immediate end to tents set up in parks during the day. As I see it, as this point, that’s not practical. Here’s why I think that: Enforcing the 7 to 7 bylaw, would mean that every day, 250 people or so would need to pack up all their things and leave the parks. Where would they go? Our Place still has limited capacity and so does the library – two places where people experiencing homelessness are welcomed. And what if it rains and everything they have gets wet? How do you fall asleep that night on a soggy wet blanket? 

We are in the middle of a global health pandemic and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Great Depression lately, and what our city looked like then. The “symbols”, if we can call it that, of the Great Depression were people in bread lines and living in “hobo jungles” and riding the rails looking for work. As a result of the Depression, the Canadian welfare state was built to ensure that there was a safety net created for those who fell through the cracks at that time. The “symbol” of this economic crisis is people with mental health and addictions challenges, living in parks. They have fallen through the cracks. All we can hope and continue to advocate for, is that a new safety net will be created. 

As many of you have said in your thoughtful emails to me, this isn’t primarily about homelessness. We need to distinguish between those that need housing and those that need structured therapeutic help for mental health and addiction issues. There are currently no treatment beds in the city for those with addictions issues. See the front page story in Times Colonist.  Addressing this dire situation requires provincial leadership and courage across the board. 

But in the meantime, as mayor, I’m doing the small part that I can on this complex issue. We’ve created the Community Wellness Alliance that I co-chair with Island Health. This group includes Island Health, BC Housing, the Coalition to End Homelessness, the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness as well as city staff in bylaw and the mayor and city manager’s office and representatives from various provincial ministries. We’ve formed a Decampment Working Group and we’ve identified a number of indoor spaces that may be available over the next six months, starting with a few that are available immediately including 24 new spaces at the Therapeutic Recovery Community in View Royal. The Decampment Working Group, which I chair is meeting weekly, vacancy by vacancy, person by person, to work on getting people matched with appropriate housing and corresponding supports. There’s a committed and hard working group of people at that table. But it’s very slow work. 

At the risk of over-sharing, or getting too personal, I did want to leave you with a book that I’ve been reading and re-reading throughout the uncertain times that the pandemic has brought. And in particular I’d like to share a passage that I’ve been reading before bed every single night for months now. If this is of use or help to you, that’s wonderful. If not, that’s okay too! If any of you have similar resources to share, please write me to let me know.

The book is by Pema Chodron and it’s called, Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion. This passage is from teaching #40 “Thinking Bigger” and it’s helping me to remain soft:

“It’s easy to continue, even after years of practice, to harden into a position of anger and indignation. However, if we can contact the vulnerability and rawness of resentment or rage or whatever it is, a bigger perspective can emerge. In the moment we choose to abide with the energy instead of acting it out or repressing it, we are training in equanimity, in thinking bigger than right and wrong. This is how all the four limitless qualities – love, compassion, joy, and equanimity – evolve from limited to limitless: we practice catching our mind hardening into fixed views and do our best to soften. Through softening, the barriers come down.”

With gratitude for you taking the time to read this email and for your ongoing shared love of our city and our community.

Lisa / Mayor Helps

“It may be the end of the world as we know it, but other worlds are possible.” – Anab Jain, Calling for More-Than-Human Politics

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