This video was shown last week at the Coalition to End Homelessness Annual General Meeting. To learn more about Face to Face with Stigma or to request a workshop, you can find them here.

Good afternoon everyone,

Thanks to those of you who have written to share your concerns in the past week and few weeks. I have been writing back to everyone all at once because of the large number of emails I’ve been receiving, but also so I can share some of your points of view and good ideas with each other.

To those of you who have been receiving these Sunday emails on a regular basis for the past few weeks, I’ve been writing you each week to keep you updated. However, I don’t want to assume that you want to keep hearing from me! 😊 So, I’m going to request that if you do want me to continue to write to you, please follow my blog. That way you will get the email automatically when I post it there, but I won’t be flooding your inbox for the next few weeks and months, unless you ask me to.

Also, I’m sorry for not writing to you yesterday as usual; there was a bit of a glitch in compiling all your addresses.

To those of you who have written to me for the first time this past week, thank you. I know this is a really difficult time for our community and it’s good for me to hear directly from you about some of the challenges you’re facing in your own lives and the impacts that homelessness, mental health and addictions are having on all of us. 

My emails to you are meant to be honest, open and heartfelt so I hope they will be received in that spirit. For the past few weeks I’ve been starting by sharing some of what I’ve heard from you in your emails and then sharing some of the challenges we’re facing as a city government, and some of the solutions we’re working on. I thought this week I’d start with solutions and then share some of what I’ve heard from all of you, and answer your questions as best as possible.

Community Wellness Alliance and Coordinated Assessment and Access
As I’ve said in the past three Sunday emails, I co-chair a Community Wellness Alliance (CWA) with Island Health. 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.

Here’s an update from this past week. (I’ll then share more the CWA and the CAA below for those of you receiving an email from me for the first time.):

  • Since September 4th, 10 people living in encampments have moved inside, including one this past week.
  • As of Friday, 150 people of the approximately 250 people currently living outside have filled in BC Housing applications. Outreach teams will make a concerted effort in the next two weeks to work to have the additional 100 people also fill out housing applications. This is the pathway into housing, motel rooms, indoor sheltering spaces. 
  • As of Friday, 30 people currently living in supportive housing units have filled out applications for a rent supplement for placement in a private market rental unit and 24 people living in supportive housing have filled out an application to live in a Regional Housing First Unit (more below). This means that once these people move (sometime in the coming two months or so), there will be 54 spaces vacated in supportive housing, shelters or motels for people currently living outside to move into. This is called “positive flow.”
  • This Wednesday the Coordinated Assessment and Access Advisory Group will decide whether to prioritize people for housing who have been living in the region for a year or more.

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. There are also 24 units for treatment available at Our Place’s Therapeutic Recovery Community (TRC) in View Royal. These are for men who are ready to access treatment. It is their home and community for up to two years. For the past two weeks TRC outreach staff have been sharing information about their program at some of the encampments. Over the next couple of weeks they will focus their outreach efforts at motel sites, as we know that once people move inside they are more stabilized and more likely to be ready to move into a long-term treatment program. This will then also free up spaces for people living outside to move directly into motels. 

In addition to those 84 spaces (60 at RHFP buildings and 24 at TRC), 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. Combined BC Housing and Island Health have provided 110 rent supplements. The rely on private sector landlords renting to people moving out of supportive housing. BC Housing and Island Health are working on a coordinated approach to landlords to secure these units.

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. 

This is a lot of detail – even more than I provided last week. I don’t know if it helps but many of you have written to me asking us to do something! And I wanted to share with you what we are doing.

Your Suggestions, Questions and Comments
Now to your suggestions, questions and comments. Thank you for these. Many of you have suggested moving people out of the city to other areas of the region with the supports they need to live successfully. One very smart 13 year old who wrote to me suggested that the Red Cross be engaged to help with this. The Red Cross is engaged in providing resources to support the people living in Central Park.

The idea of moving people out of the city with the supports they need is a good one, and some of the people living in the parks have suggested this themselves. But the reality is the City of Victoria does not have this power or ability. There are lots of good areas in the region for setting up work-camp like settings with appropriate supports. As I often say, the city of Victoria proper is a tiny 20sq k/m handkerchief, and right now we are seeing a concentration of people living here with mental health and addictions challenges, as well as just simply being homeless, because there is nowhere else for them to go.

We tried really hard to secure Oak Bay Lodge for seniors experiencing homeless so that seniors currently living in shelters could move to Oak Bay Lodge and others could move inside from the parks, but the CRD Board voted to keep it vacant.

Many of you have also commented that it’s not only housing that people need, but also treatment and you’ve asked the city to provide better treatment options. The City isn’t responsible for health care. But I wholeheartedly agree about the need for more treatment. A provincial election has just been called and myself and mayors from across the province will be working hard to raise this issue with all parties.

Some of you have written and said that the city you used to love is no longer the same city because of all the people with mental health and addictions so visible on our streets. Talking with my colleagues from other urban centres across the province from the north, to the interior, to here on the coast, we are all facing the same thing: unprecedented numbers of people on our streets who should be receiving proper health care to meet their needs. It is a crisis and it’s getting worse not better. Victoria is not an exception. Victoria is not alone. Myself and my colleagues across the province will be actively organizing on this and other issues. I’ll keep you posted here as our election advocacy rolls out. We need immediate action in all of our communities.

Another issue that many of you have raised this past week is asking how could City Council care more about people sheltering in parks than kids needs to play in parks, and similar questions along these lines, like how could we give parks over to people who are homeless instead of keeping parks for tax paying citizens. I can’t speak for the rest of council but I can say that for me, people who are homeless are not more important than kids. And these are really difficult questions to answer. The simple answer, most honest answer is that the reason we are allowing people to be in parks is there is literally nowhere else for people to go. Removing them from parks doesn’t remove them from existence.

There is no good explanation for people having no choice but to live outside in as prosperous a city as Victoria, as prosperous a province as BC, and as prosperous a country as Canada. It is unconscionable. There are many factors that result in the current situation of people living in parks but I won’t go into them now or it might sound like I am lecturing or telling you things you already know about systemic inequality, precarity and vulnerability.

Where can your kids play? Many school properties have playgrounds that are open to the public after school hours and on weekends, so that is one option for people who don’t feel comfortable bringing their kids to play in parks where people are camping. A few of you have written and told me that you are still taking your kids to play in their regular parks and explaining to them while you’re there about the challenges their unhoused neighbours are facing. These are not easy conversations to have and I thank you for having them.

Some of you have asked why people aren’t camping in all neighbourhoods and are most concentrated in Central Park. Others of you have asked when we will be enforcing the bylaws we passed requiring more spacing between tents which will result in less people in any one park and more people in all parks.  As with all new bylaws, there is a period of community engagement and education and we are currently are in that phase. City staff are also developing a strategy to apply these bylaws in a manner where redistribution of tents and the people living in them is done in a thoughtful, compassionate and collaborative manner with both the unhoused and the larger community. In the meantime, in the North Park neighbourhood where Central Park is located, the North Park Community Association is heavily involved with solutions and they are working with City staff and the unhoused community in the park. Everyone is working together to find a way forward.

And some of you have simply said, “I want my park back.” I want this too. More than anything. Because it will mean that we’ve moved people inside. It will mean that they’re no longer in such desperate and vulnerable situations. It will mean that the parks feel more welcoming to everyone again. It will mean that some of the tensions in our community that have been heightened because of pandemic-related homelessness will lessen. I was so surprised to learn that there are people throwing rocks and bottles at tents, it seemed to me for a moment when I heard this story that we’d lost our way. But I know we haven’t. Because all of you are writing to me to share your concerns. To ask questions. To share ideas. To engage in dialogue about this really, really difficult issue. It’s this ongoing dialogue that gives me hope that we will find our way through this. 

With gratitude,
Lisa / Mayor Helps

P.S. To those of you who wrote to me about downtown and Centennial Square, please see my post from Sunday September 13, under the heading Parks Bylaw Changes, Centennial Square and Policing where I address this issue.

“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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