Good morning everyone,
Thanks so much for taking the time to write to me over this past week, and the past few weeks. I’ve read all of your emails and I’ve received a lot! So as I have on previous Sundays, I’m taking the opportunity to write back to all of you together. As I’ve said in earlier emails, what follows is meant to be an honest and open-hearted approach. Just me, Lisa, reflecting and sharing with you on a Sunday morning. No “key messages” or talking points etc. For those of you who haven’t read my emails from the past two weeks, you can find them here.
I so appreciate the thoughtful and constructive tone of so many of the emails I’ve received. Many of you are sharing your stories about the impacts you’re feeling from having people living in our parks – from feelings of fear, to having things stolen from your yards, to seeing the kinds of behaviours that frighten you and/or your children, to the impacts on your businesses. Some of you have shared stories about conversations you’ve had with your unhoused neighbours over the past few weeks and have contacted me to share what some individuals need. Thank you; this allows us to help direct the organizations providing outreach to the right places.
Many of you are also expressing compassion for people who find themselves homeless and living in a park in an unprecedented global health pandemic; you realize the complexity of the situation and that there are no easy solutions. Many of you have also made suggestions such as better access to treatment – noting that some of the people you’ve encountered need more than just housing but support for their mental health and addictions challenges. Or building tiny homes. Or moving people out of town into one large area and providing the supports they need there. All of you have said that there are no good places in the city for people to live outside. Some of you think that the City of Victoria, or me personally has created this situation and should just clean it up. And a few of you thought that the language I used in my email last Sunday was stigmatizing and creating more ill will towards people who are living in our community without homes.
While I may not speak to your individual concerns precisely in this email, I do want to give an update on some of the things that we’re working on. I agree wholeheartedly that there are no good places for people to be living outside in a country as prosperous as Canada. It’s wrong, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s having negative impacts on everyone, housed and unhoused.
Before I get into the steps we’re taking to move people inside over the next four to six months, I want to address another theme that came through in many of your emails. A sense of loss and mourning. And a sense that the situation we find ourselves in is somehow permanent, that this is the new Victoria rather than a moment of crisis.
I share your sense of mourning. I feel terrible that some people feel afraid to use the parks. And I feel terrible that some people have nowhere to live inside and nowhere to go during the day and that they are living in parks. It is a source of grief and heartbreak. The other thing that feels so difficult for me is to watch our community divided over this issue. I know compassion is so very difficult to muster when you’ve had your window smashed, or your golf clubs stolen, or when your kids feel afraid. It’s really hard. And it’s not my place to tell people to be more compassionate. That always backfires and creates a sense of defensiveness. So what I will say, to quote our beloved provincial public health officer Dr. Henry, is that this is for now, it is not forever. We are in a crisis situation, we are still living under a Provincial State of Emergency. We are not “back to normal” whatever that means. People will get housed. People will have their parks back for more recreational uses. The Provincial State of Emergency will be lifted at some point.
This is for now, it’s not forever. The current moment we find ourselves in is not indicative of Victoria’s future; Victoria has a bright future. And one of the reasons I’m a wee bit weary these days is that I’m working so hard to address the crisis of homelessness on our doorsteps and in our parks (with completely inadequate resources), at the same time as working just as hard on the City’s future through the implementation of Victoria 3.0 to make sure that Victorians in the coming decades have a strong inclusive economy, good jobs and a bright future. Here’s a good recent article from Douglas Magazine that shares some of that work. We will get through this. And we’ll come out stronger if, and this is a big if, we can work hard together to change the tone of the conversations we’re having about our beloved city right now, and if we can find a way to have our shared fears, our shared vulnerabilities – housed and unhoused people alike – bring us closer together rather than drive us further apart.
Community Wellness Alliance and Coordinated Assessment and Access
As I’ve said in the past two Sunday emails, I co-chair a Community Wellness Alliance with Island Health. This group existed pre-COVID but has pivoted now to help address the camping in parks issue. We’ve formed a Decampment Working Group that meets weekly to move people from outside to inside. Over the next four months there are a substantial number of indoor spaces that will be available, not enough to take care of everyone living outside at this point, but a significant number.
There are 60 units opening in November in Langford and View Royal as part of the Regional Housing First Program (RHFP.) These units rent at $375 per month. Our thinking is that people currently living in motels, shelters or supportive housing can move into these units and then 60 people can move from outside into the spaces vacated. There are also 24 units for treatment available at Our Place’s Therapeutic Recovery Community in View Royal. These are for men who are ready to access treatment. It is their home and community for up to two years. In addition, BC Housing and Island Health are providing some “rent supplements”. This is a top-up provided to the income assistance rate which makes it possible for people to move from supportive housing into market rental units. And then, as with the Regional Housing First units, people can move from parks into the supportive housing units that are vacated. The announcement about the number of rent supplements available is not mine to make, but I will say that it’s not an insignificant number.
This whole “positive flow” process – from supportive housing to RHFP or market unit and then from parks to supportive housing – is coordinated by the BC Housing, Island Health and the CRD. As vacancies become available, the CAA placement table meets and decides who is moving where based on the needs that they have identified in their housing application. Part of the key work of the Decampment Working Group in the next couple of weeks is ensuring that everyone living outside has a housing application filled out; many currently do and are in line for housing.
The CAA policy group (a separate group from the placement table) sets the priorities on an annual basis for who gets housed. There has been a lot of debate about whether people who are living in our parks are from here or not. While we respect the freedom of movement of people in Canada, Council passed a motion that I brought forward asking the CAA policy group to prioritize housing people who have lived in the region for a year or more. The CAA policy table will make this decision on September 23rd.
I know this is a lot of detail. But many of you have written to me asking me to do something! And I just wanted to assure you all that we are; the Community Wellness Alliance and the CAA process and all the amazing folks out there on the front lines in the parks, connecting with people and doing outreach, are aiming to move as many of the 275 people who are currently living outside as possible into safe, secure indoor places over the next four months. It is slow, hard work.
Parks Bylaw Changes, Centennial Square and Policing
On Thursday, Council finalized changes to the parks bylaw that will help us to better manage the current situation. The changes include a limit to the amount of space each sheltering area can occupy (3m x 3m), a 4m space between shelters, an 8m requirement between shelters and playgrounds and 50m from shelters to school grounds. The portion of the bylaw that allows daytime camping will expire 30 days after the Province lifts the State of Emergency. The effect of these changes is that it will limit the number of people camping in any one park. This does mean that unless help comes soon from the federal or provincial governments, we will see people moving from some parks (eg Central Park has over 80 tents; the new rules mean there is room for about 20 tents there) to other parks around the city. The Coalition to End Homelessness is working to coordinate outreach and to ensure that there is outreach available to where people will be moving to. Many of you have of said in your emails that moving people around from one park to another does not solve the problem. I agree.
Council also decided this past week to continue to allow camping in Centennial Square. Camping is not currently possible there as staff are remediating the grounds from the encampment that just left. When and if people choose to return there, the new bylaws and spacing requirements will restrict the number of tents to somewhere between 4 and 6. I respect Council’s decision, but I disagree with it. As I said, moving people from park to park doesn’t make sense. And there are no good outdoor spaces for camping in the city for people who are vulnerable and need to be inside. But I think that Centennial Square and the downtown need to be treated as a special case.
Downtown is the economic engine of the region. Our downtown businesses are already struggling as a result of COVID-19. I think that as a city government we need to do everything in our power to support them right now. Some of the people who work in these businesses are relatively low-wage service workers who may themselves be teetering precariously on the brink of homelessness if they lose their jobs because of a business closure, and can’t pay their rent. I realize that advocating for no camping downtown puts pressure on neighbourhood parks. But as mayor I need think about all angles and considerations. The economic health of our downtown benefits all of us. Businesses pay more than three times the amount of taxes as residential property owners do; these business taxes help pay for the amenities and quality of life that we all enjoy as Victorians. Council did decide to ask staff to come back in a month’s time with some sort of analysis on the impacts of not allowing camping in the downtown. So that conversation will continue.
Council also decided on Thursday to allocate close to an additional $100,000 for policing for the remainder of 2020 to help ensure safety and security around the areas where people are camping. Police aren’t the answer to solving or even managing homelessness. But between approving funding for the Coalition to End Homelessness to work with people in encampments, to changes to the parks bylaws, to additional policing, we are taking as comprehensive and systemic an approach possible to manage what is a very difficult situation for everyone.
The Federal Government
Last week I asked people to write to the federal government to request that they support the Province to acquire more housing for people who are currently living outside. I hope that many of you did. One resident shared their email with me, and I wanted to say thanks and to share this email with all of you for inspiration in case you also wish to write.
Subject: Homeless crisis solution for Victoria requires federal support asap.
To: firstname.lastname@example.org <email@example.com>, firstname.lastname@example.org <email@example.com>, firstname.lastname@example.org <email@example.com>
Dear MPs: I write regarding the ongoing social and health crisis here in Victoria due to a severe lack of supportive housing for several hundred homeless citizens currently encamped in parks throughout the city. As you may be aware, both the civic administration and the provincial government have deployed millions of dollars to acquire and repurpose hotel and motel facilities in the city but have still fallen short of the target, leaving approximately 254 homeless without any option other than continued tenting in public parks, where criminal activities and vandalism have provoked a serious backlash from residents and business owners.
With a concurrent opioid crisis, mental health crisis and the likelihood of a second wave of Covid19 this fall, it is absolutely vital that this problem be solved asap. But it is clear this will not happen unless the federal government agrees to join the battle and shoulder its share of the load. I needn’t remind you that Ottawa created a $46billion fund in 2018 to support affordable housing projects across the country, but to date has approved less than one percent, or $7.3 million for two projects in BC while Ontario has received $1.39 billion for 12 projects. Surely it is obvious that Victoria’s problem, while significant, could be resolved for far less than that, especially when the province’s contribution is added. I urge you to consider this issue and press the government to respond soon. I look forward to your response.
There are some glimmers of hope coming out of Ottawa in terms of a substantial housing acquisition fund. We’ll keep working with our colleagues at the federal government to ensure that once this fund is announced that the money gets out as quickly as possible.
I know this has been a lot of information to share all at once. I’ve been sitting here typing for the last hour and a half and it’s probably time to get up, refill my coffee and then tackle all of the other non-homelessness related “action items” coming out of various meetings this past week.
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 a More-Than-Human-Politics