Thanks for taking the time to write to me this past week. Because of the high volume of emails we’ve been receiving about people camping in parks, I’ve been reading all of your emails, then responding to all of you at once. I don’t want to repeat myself from previous Sunday emails, because who wants a mayor that sounds like a broken record! I really encourage you to read at least the last few emails (which I’ve turned into blog posts to make more accessible) if you haven’t. It’s a lot to wade through, I know. But I also think it’s important to have information about some of the concerns that have been raised by residents and businesses, my responses, and the work we’re doing. Here are the posts from the last couple of Sundays:
These emails are meant to be frank, honest and open-hearted, to reflect back to you what I’ve heard, to answer questions as best as I can, and to share information. I’ll hope you’ll read in this spirit.
Those of you who wrote this week were concerned, as others have been in past weeks, about the use of parks and the importance of parks for kids, about the increased level of unpredictable behaviour you’re witnessing, about how you don’t feel safe.
I think what we’re all starting to realize in Victoria and across the province is that leaving people outside – many of whom have mental health and/or addictions issues and all of whom have likely experienced some form of trauma – is not working for anyone. Kids need safe places to be and to play, as many of you have so articulately said. Seniors need safe places to walk. Everyone needs a safe place to live. And people who are sick need proper health care. When no one has any of these things, everyone is hurting, our whole community is hurting. And right now, our whole community is hurting.
And in the middle of all this hurt that is happening here in Victoria and in urban centres across the province, last Monday, a provincial election was called. There are many different feelings about this election call. But it is what it is. And now, we have an opportunity to use this election to ask everyone running to commit to real immediate solutions for mental health, addictions and homelessness, that are developed with people with lived experiences at the centre. We cannot go on like this.
I’ve been meeting over the past few months with mayors from across urban British Columbia, from the north, to the coast to the interior. We’ll be releasing our election calls for action later this week. And there will be a strong focus on immediate solutions to take care of those in our community who are living outside and most vulnerable, not only for their own sake, but for the sake of our entire communities. Please join us.
Write to candidates, attend virtual all candidates sessions, and raise the issue of mental health, addictions and treatment, over and over again. Once the new government is sitting, we need action in Victoria and in communities across British Columbia. And we need action in months not years. I’ll post the urban mayors’ calls to action on my website later this week. Feel free to use that as a starting point for your own conversations.
In the meantime, many of you have also written to us about bylaw enforcement and when the new bylaws that were adopted on September 14th are going to be enforced. These bylaws require 4m of spacing between tents, no more than a 9m square footprint per sheltering site, 8m between shelters and playgrounds and 50m between shelters and schools.
The first step with any bylaw enforcement is to seek voluntary compliance through education and sharing of information. This has been happening for the past few weeks. My expectation is that in the coming weeks that we will begin to see visible changes and compliance among people camping. This does mean that we will likely see people moving to smaller neighbourhood parks where there is currently no one sheltering.
It’s hard to imagine being asked to limit ones belongings and footprint to such a small area, when you think about how big many of our homes, apartments and condos are – much larger than 9×9. But in this situation where people have no choice but to occupy public parks, there does need to be some compromise so that parks can also remain available for other members of the public to use. My hope is that we begin to see compliance, if not we’ll need to take other measures.
Finally, and as always, thanks for your suggestions! Some of you have observed driving through rural British Columbia and noticing lots of open space and lots of buildings for sale and have said that this might be a good place for people who are homeless to live. Some may wish to do so. And the Province may wish to pursue such solutions. As a City Council we are only responsible for the 20 square km handkerchief of land that is Victoria.
Others of you have suggested repurposed shipping containers on empty parking lots. I think this a good idea and have passed it along to BC Housing to pursue. Others have suggested having people living in parkades. This is not something we will be exploring at this point, as we need to balance the needs of Victoria as the commercial centre of the region with the needs of people sheltering outdoors with the needs for local businesses, employees and customers to come into the downtown.
And a number of you have suggested over the past few months just moving everyone to one place in the city – whether it is Royal Athletic Park or the all-weather field at Beacon Hill Park. We know from past experience that large encampments are not safe places for anyone – neither residents of those encampments, or nearby residents. This is evident in the situation we have in Central Park. There are too many people there and it’s putting stress on the people camping and on the neighbourhood. This is – in part – why we changed the bylaws as it will lead to smaller encampments across the city.
All this talk of encampments and responding to questions, concerns and ideas about encampments, sometimes makes even me lose sight of the real goal here. The real goal here is to have no one camping in any park. The goal is to get people inside with the supports and care they need to remain housed successfully. To get treatment as needed. To settle. To heal from trauma. To reconnect with family. That’s the real work. And that work is happening very slowly through the Community Wellness Alliance Decampment Working Group that I’ve highlighted in previous posts and through the hard work of BC Housing, Island Health and many community partners.
Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts with me. I wish I had easy answers. What I can say is that we’re working just as hard as we can on this really important issue so that we can help to heal the hurt in the community that it is causing.
Lisa / Mayor Helps