North Park Neighbourhood Association member Allison Ashcroft hands a toque to a person in her neighbourhood who is living without a home in Central Park. Photo Credit: Luke Connor.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone,

For those of you who might be wondering why the mayor is writing to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving, it’s because you’ve written to me in the past week about sheltering in parks. I’m still receiving a high number of emails on this topic so – as I’ve been doing for the past many Sundays now – I read all your emails and then share information that is hopefully of interest to all of those who have written.

This week’s email is going to be a bit long. First, I want to take the time to give thanks. Second, I’d like to give a really thorough answer to one particular email I received Saturday evening on how housing works in the City of Victoria that I think is important for everyone to know. And third, I’ll address your comments. To make it easier for you to read, I’ve put headings in; feel free to skip directly to what you’re interested in. For those of you receiving a Sunday email for the first time: if you’d like to continue to stay up to date on sheltering in parks and other related matters, you can follow my blog here where I also post these emails.

In case not everyone makes it all the way to the end for the sign off, I’ll say now that I hope you and your loved ones have a safe and happy thanksgiving. Even though this has been a very difficult year for us as a city, province, country and world, there are so many things that we have to be thankful for – large and small. I hope this weekend brings with it some time for reflection and grace.

Thanks Giving to the North Park Neighbourhood Association
For the past many months now there has been a growing tent encampment in Central Park in the North Park Neighbourhood. Council recently passed bylaws that will mean some people will need to move from Central Park to other parks around the city so that there are smaller encampments. Although there is no good park for anyone to be living in anywhere in a country as prosperous as ours where the federal government enacted legislation last year asserting the right to housing, we know from experience that smaller encampments are better for everyone than large ones.

There have been many people in the community working hard out there to respond to COVID-related homelessness, from service providers and front line workers, nurses and doctors funded by Island Health, to BC Housing to the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness and the Aborginal Coaliton to End Homelessness, to our own city staff in parks, public works and bylaw. They all deserve thanks.

This weekend, for thanks giving, I want to express special gratitude to the North Park Neighbourhood Association (NPNA). The NPNA is a small neighbourhood association with no community centre and few resources, in the poorest part of the city. When people started arriving in their neighbourhood in tents, they stepped in rather than turned away. They found some funding from the Red Cross to help in the emergency. They’ve been building relationships with their unhoused neighbours. Knowing that the winter is coming, over this weekend they arranged for Cook Street Castle to drop off pallets to get people off the wet ground. They arranged for some futon mattresses to be delivered for the elderly and ailing residents of the encampment (who should be safe, warm and secure in the vacant Oak Bay Lodge) to make them more comfortable until they can move indoors.

They also called on the expertise in their own community to help. Jennie on the right in the photo below is an avid back-country camper; she spent her day Saturday helping the people living outside to secure their sites against the fall rain and wind which are already beginning.

A member of the NPNA said that when people sheltering move to other neighbourhoods, NPNA volunteers are going to go and set up for a few hours at parks where the people are moving to. They are going to notify other neighbourhood associations to come out and meet their new neighbours so that hopefully mutual respect and the volunteer spirit exemplified by the NPNA will help the people living outside with a smooth transition and will help to shed some of the fear.

The NPNA staff and volunteers don’t have their heads in the sand; they aren’t oblivious to the challenges that having a tent encampment in the middle of their neighbourhood are causing. They see on a daily basis the impacts of untreated mental health and addictions. They see the impacts of poverty, of homelessness. But instead of turning away, they’ve stepped in in a wholehearted way. For this they deserve our collective thanks. What they are doing and the approach they are taking shouldn’t be remarkable.

If there’s nothing else you take away from this section of the blog post, please take 10 minutes to listen to Sarah Murray, the Executive Director of the NPNA on CBC.

How Housing Works in the City of Victoria
On Saturday evening, I received this email, which I have permission to share:

Hi Lisa,

I live in North Park, right across the street from Central Park.  The influx of tents into our park has raised a lot of questions for me.  To be honest, it started with anger and resentment, but the more I dug into the number of shelter spaces, zoning restrictions, BC housing, Island Health, CRD meeting minutes (yes…I read meeting minutes…I’m so desperate, I read CRHD meeting minutes), the more I realized that I don’t understand how we go from tax dollars to shelter beds.

Here’s the question:  How do the Feds, the Province, and city create shelter for those who need it?  How is it supposed to work?

Here’s my guess:  The feds give money to the province, the province distributes the money through BC housing, the CRD makes a plan for the region, the city adjusts zoning and bylaws to fit the CRHC plan, non-profits staff and run the shelters.  Is that close?

I think there’s a strong current of anger and confusion in the city…I can’t be the only one who doesn’t understand how this is supposed to work…and I’m worried that anger is going to land on the wrong place.  Some clarity might go a long way. 

I’m certain you’re swamped with work, but I’d really like to understand this a bit better. I appreciate you taking the time to read this. I know you have very little to spare.

Thanks,

In 1994 the federal government invested roughly $113 per capita in affordable housing. By 2014, the federal government was only spending $58 per capita on affordable housing and the population of the country grew by 30% during that same period. In the 1980s and 1990s the provincial government closed institutions that had housed people with complex needs with the hopes of a more humane and integrated approach to mental health and addictions.

Those two things combined – and many other factors as well – have led to a downhill slide for the past three decades in terms of housing, homelessness, mental health and addictions in British Columbia and probably across the country. So now, everyone is playing catch up.

The federal government has a National Housing Strategy and has committed $55 billion to addressing housing and homelessness. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Company (CMHC) which is the crown corp responsible for delivering a lot of the housing strategy has declared boldly that by 2030 everyone in Canada will have a home they can afford. And in 2019, the federal government passed the National Housing Strategy Act which made housing a human right. The federal government also runs the Reaching Home Program which distributes funding directly to local communities to help address homelessness. In Victoria this program is administered through the CRD.

In British Columbia, BC Housing is the agency that delivers funding and expertise for the provincial government to communities. BC Housing’s preferred model is for non-profit housing providers to own and operate buildings and for BC Housing to fund their construction. BC Housing does own some buildings especially some of the new modular buildings that have opened around the province in the past few years. Island Health also builds and operates – or contracts out the operations of – housing sites for people who also have medical needs.

The Capital Regional District has a Housing and Land Banking function. That function has been incredibly active in the past four years with the creation and implementation of the Regional Housing First Program. This is where the rubber hits the road. The CRD secured $80 million from the federal and provincial governments and put in $40 million of our own to build 2000 units of housing including 400 units that rent at $375 per month and another significant number that are below market. 900 of these units are under construction right now across the region.

In addition, the Capital Regional Housing Corporation (CRHC) – a fully owned subsidiary of the CRD – builds and runs housing. Seventy percent of the CRHC units are rent-geared-to-income or RGI, this means that the rent is geared to incomes that people make. The other 30% are close to or slightly below market rates. The CRHC gets funding directly from BC Housing and also through the Regional Housing First Program. The rents cover the operating costs.

The City of Victoria does not build or run housing or shelters. The City has an Affordable Housing Trust Fund that we replenish each year in the budget process. This fund is distributed on a per bedroom basis to non-profit housing providers for construction costs. We grant $10,000 per bedroom for units that serve the lowest income people in our community. The per bedroom amount is to incentivize the development of more family sized units.

The City also swaps, uses or buys city-owned land for the purposes of building affordable housing. For example there are 130 units of affordable housing that will go on top of our new fire hall on Johnson Street. We have also partnered with the school district and swapped and harmonized land ownership for 151 units of affordable housing in Fernwood near Vic High, which will be run by the CRHC and another 88 units of affordable housing on city and school district owned land in Burnside Gorge to be run by Pacifica Housing.

In addition, the City looks to use our own vacant buildings to offer up as shelters. The old Boys and Girls Club on Yates street has been a shelter since 2016. It is owned by the City, funded by BC Housing and operated by Our Place Society.

Shelters (usually mats on the floor) are funded by BC Housing and run by non-profit societies in spaces that are donated by community centres, churches or other volunteer agencies.

Island Health provides health care and supports to people in supportive housing and also supports people who need lighter supports but can live more independently.

Phew! That’s a lot of explaining. And as I typed all this up, I realized again what I already know in my bones: the only way to address homelessness, mental health, addictions and poverty is through deep collaboration and the combining of resources. Even though the mayor has no official role to play in all of this, as the co-chair of the Coalition to End Homelessness, the Chair of the Capital Regional Housing Corporation, and as someone who knows how to bring people together, I’ve been working hard with all the agencies above before and throughout the pandemic. Our collective goal right now, through the Community Wellness Alliance Decampment Working Group is to get 200 people inside before the end of the year. Making this happen will require a combination of hard work and miracles.

Your Comments Addressed
This week many of you have continued to raise concerns about people moving to smaller neighbourhood parks. Some of you have expressed not feeling safe. Some of you have asked for certain parks – Pemberton, Gonzales, Stevenson – to be exempt from camping. Some of you have asked about addressing the issue of people camping across from the South Park school playground and also with respect to proximity to day care centres. Some of you have written concerned about the crime that you’re hearing about associated with parks. Many of you have written to me asking us to support the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness 6 Point Plan to End Chronic Homelessness in Canada. Some of you have made suggestions about temporarily housing people on a cruise ship or in large modified pipes with small sleeping pods. And there is also a bit of a trend this week of people sending clips from Twitter and Facebook for me to look at.

With respect to small neighbourhood parks, there are 12 parks that have been identified where people can camp. These were chosen because they have facilities. This is a temporary measure in the midst of a global health pandemic and provincial state of emergency. It is not a long-term solution. I’ve heard from a few people this week that you or people you know are wanting to sell your homes across from certain parks. I feel sad about that. Most people really love their neighbourhoods, their neighbours and their parks. Having people camping in them is disruptive, for sure, but it’s for now, to get through the next few months as we continue to find indoor spaces. At this time Council does not plan to make any more parks exempt; we do plan to work with bylaw, parks staff, neighbourhood associations and the public to make the next few months as bearable as possible for everyone.

With respect to further changes to the parks bylaw, there may be some further tweaks that are needed. These include addressing the situation at the South Park playground and a 50 metre buffer. We also may need to make further changes to ensure that people aren’t camping too close to residences. The daycare issue is also important to give consideration to. If you did listen to Sarah Murray Executive Director of the North Park Neighbourhood Association on CBC (noted above) she lays out really well the complexity of changing the rules too many times in the process of working to get compliance.

With respect to crime, Council has given VicPD some extra resources to address some of the situations that can arise at or as a result of encampments. This past week a high-profile arrest was made and that person is now off the streets. VicPD will continue to work hard to address crime and do their best to ensure that all residents of our city are safe. All residents living near parks need to be protected from crime and predatory behaviour as do the most vulnerable people living in encampments. This is a shared issue for housed and unhoused alike.

Yes, I will support the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness 6 Point Plan to End Chronic Homelessness in Canada and will bring a motion to Council asking them to do so as well. And I’ll continue to pass along suggestions for creative housing solutions to BC Housing. The cruise ship idea has come forward before and I have passed it along.

Finally, with respect to Facebook and Twitter posts, I can’t look at them as I’m not on Facebook or Twitter. I’ve deliberately left these platforms and I won’t be returning. My assessment of these social media platforms is that they can bring out the worst of people in our community and beyond. I won’t recap my reasons here but if you want to read about why I left Facebook and Twitter you can head to these posts.

I do welcome your emails! Part of the richness of this job is that I get to hear such a diversity of opinions and perspectives, and that I have the luxury of good coffee and some time on Sunday morning to address them.

With gratitude,

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

%d bloggers like this: