As part of a temporary distributed model of outdoor sheltering during the Provincial State of Emergency and the COVID-19 global health pandemic, staff have put these signs up in parks where there are facilities and running water. The signs outline where in the park sheltering is permitted and where it’s not and the regulations for people to follow.

Hello everyone,

Thanks to all of you who have written to me this past week with questions and comments on the situation of people sheltering in parks and the impact this is having on everyone. As I’ve been doing for the past few months , I read all your emails and then respond to them all at once on Sunday mornings. I also turn the email into a blog post to make sure all the information is shared as widely as possible. Please feel free to forward or share.

This email will be broken into three sections. If you’re only interested in one topic, please just skip down to that. Though I do encourage everyone to take the time to read the whole thing! First I’ll give an update on how the decampment process of moving people from outdoors to indoors is going. Then I’ll address your questions and concerns. Finally, I’ll end with a personal note.

If you’ve received a Sunday email before and asked me to “take you off my list”, I don’t have a list. At the end of the week, we gather up all the emails of people who have written in the past week on sheltering. So if you write to me during the week, I’m going to write you back! However, I do have a blog and if you’d like to stay updated on a weekly basis, you can sign up here to do so. Many people who have received previous Sunday emails have signed up to stay in touch that way and I really appreciate it.

Community Wellness Alliance Decampment Working Group Update
In many past emails and posts I’ve outlined the work of the Community Wellness Alliance Decampment Working Group which I chair. This group – made up of Island Health, BC Housing, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness and Our Place – meets every Friday to focus on the work of moving people from outside to inside.

The Community Wellness Alliance – which is a much larger group that meets monthly – has committed to getting 200 people who are currently living in parks inside by December 31st of this year. With approximately 250 people currently living in parks, this will make a big difference. People with the longest experiences of homelessness and the deepest vulnerability will be given priority, which means people recently arrived here will not. We’ve set the goal of 200 and we’re working really, really hard to meet it.

Where will these 200 people live? 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. 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. Some people living outside may also move directly into the RHFP units. There are also 24 units for treatment available at Our Place’s Therapeutic Recovery Community in View Royal. In addition, BC Housing and Island Health are providing 110 “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 people can move from parks into the supportive housing units that are vacated. There is one further opportunity for housing that will be available before the end of the year, bringing the total number of spaces to above 200. That opportunity can’t be announced at this time because there is no sitting government during an election.

The 110 rent supplement units are key to our success. And I’m going to ask for your help. Rent supplements mean that people have between $750 and $825 per month to spend on rent in private market rental units. The people moving into units funded by rent supplements are ready to move out of shelters or supportive housing. They may need light supports that can be provided by Island Health or others. They don’t need or want to be in supportive housing or shelters any more. In fact, at Friday’s meeting it was reported that three people currently living in shelters – motivated by the availability of rent supplements – went out and found their own apartments in the private market.

So far in total, only seven units have been made available for November 1st by private market landlords willing to rent to people moving out of supportive housing. The challenge before us is massive. The Downtown Victoria Business Association and Chamber of Commerce – both of which sit on the Community Wellness Alliance – are reaching out to private sector landlords and property management companies. The non-profits that have current tenants in supportive housing who are ready to live independently are also reaching out to landlords. And, Island Health is also appointing a person to coordinate outreach to landlords. If you or anyone you know has a vacancy coming up for November 1st or December 1st and would like to be part of the solution email me mayor@victoria.ca

This whole “positive flow” process – from supportive housing to Regional Housing First or market units and then from parks to supportive housing – is facilitated by the Coordinated Assessment and Access (CAA) process run by BC Housing, Island Health and the CRD. As vacancies become available, the CAA placement table meets and decides who is the best fit for which housing opportunity based on the needs people living outdoors or in shelters have identified in their housing applications.

Your Questions and Concerns, My Responses and Reflections
This past week many of you have written concerned about people moving to smaller parks in your neighbourhoods. Some of you wonder how these parks were chosen, why there was no consultation and have asked for the parks in your neighbourhoods to be exempted. You’ve said you’re afraid of having homeless camps set up. Some of you have asked why middle class families who pay good taxes should have to endure this.

Some of you have said that you live in North Park near Central Park and that your neighbourhood doesn’t feel safe. You’ve taken the time to write detailed accounts of your experiences so that I will understand what you are going through. Some of the things you’ve shared are awful and should not be happening in your neighbourhood or in any neighbourhood. You long for the days when kids ran and played freely in Central Park. Some of you have said that this unpredictable, sometimes scary and violent behaviour is happening because people don’t have the help they need. This isn’t good for them but it isn’t good for you either. Some of you have recognized that not all people who are living without homes are the same.

Some of you have said that you’re not NIMBY’s (I hate that term by the way, and I don’t use it. I think it is divisive, pits “us” against “them” and doesn’t help move things forward), and that you want to help. You’ve asked about housing options (see above), you’ve asked about more shelters in the meantime, you’ve asked if there are enough mental health and addictions supports, and you’ve also asked if once these things are in place, or well on their way, if we can return to 7pm to 7am camping and not allow people to camp in parks during the day. Someone else said they think we made a mistake to allow 24/7 camping in the first place.

The general thrust of many of the emails is that you want your parks back, you want your kids to be and feel safe, and how could we have let this happen?

As I’ve said in past emails, I want parks to be able to be enjoyed by everyone. I want kids to feel safe. And seniors too. I don’t want people camping near schools, or daycares or anywhere. This is what we are working towards. And we will get there.

Right now we’re in the middle of a global health pandemic. When the pandemic hit, shelters halved their numbers to meet distancing requirements and sent people out on the streets. People who were couch surfing or staying with friends were sent outside as well, as we were all told to get in our bubbles and stay there. Around the world, the number one refrain during March and April was, “Stay at home.” Here in Victoria and in other many other places all across the country, municipal governments allowed people who couldn’t follow the basic public health advice, “Stay at home,” to shelter in place. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Henry advised on June 8th in a memo to all mayors in British Columbia that encampments should not be cleared unless there safe indoor spaces for people to go. At this time, she has not rescinded her advice or sent any further memos.

Now here we are all these months later and we’re not through the pandemic and people are still sheltering in place, outside. This puts us all in a very tough spot. I hear your collective cries for help, for action. I know that for many of you who have written to me, me actually hearing you would look like the immediate end to camping in parks and returning parks to all members of the public, not just to members of the public without homes. I don’t know what else to do except to keep working on this with all the energy and tools I have so that eventually, you will feel heard.

In terms of how parks are chosen and or exempted, I’ll share a note from our Director of Parks. For clarity – for those of you who have been asking our Director of Parks to exempt certain parks, the decision-making authority to do so lies with Council not with staff.

“The  homelessness situation is obviously a major challenge that is affecting many in the community, both housed and unhoused.  While the provincial government works on addressing the primary causes of this complex issue, municipal governments like Victoria are doing what we can to address the symptoms and mitigate risks.  

“The amendments to the Parks Bylaw represent one suite of tactics that are intended to reduce some of the health and safety risks, while respecting the legal right for unhoused citizens to shelter in parks.  The new regulations allow the City further discretion about how and where sheltering occurs, by requiring spacing between shelters and other park amenities, and limiting the size of tents.  As you’ve noted Council also approved adding parks to the list of areas where sheltering is prohibited, which are immediately adjacent to schools, used as primary grounds for students and under license with the City for this purpose. 

“Pemberton Park is certainly close to schools and undoubtedly used by students at times, but it did not meet the criteria above. As you can imagine, if the criteria was expanded to include parks with similar uses many more would be excluded from the list, and the result would be to push sheltering into even smaller parks that do not have basic services like washrooms and water fountains.

“I sincerely appreciate the concerns that you and other residents have raised and I wish that there were more permanent solutions immediately available for those experiencing homelessness and serious health issues.  None of us in the City team believe that the current state is an acceptable one, however, we are attempting to deal with this emergency in a thoughtful and reasonable way.”

In terms of suggested solutions, someone this week suggested that new developments should include affordable housing. The City’s Inclusionary Housing Policy requires new condo buildings over a certain size to have some form of affordable housing, or make a contribution to the housing reserve. We’ve seen the most success with the incorporation of below-market home ownership units. This means that people currently living in market rental units that can now afford homes will vacate those rental units, take some pressure off the rental vacancy rate making more market units available for those ready to move out of supportive housing. In addition, in the City alone there are over 800 affordable and supportive housing units currently in the development process including 151 units right near my house.

A group of you wrote suggesting this approach:

  • The rainy season is on our doorstep. No one should be left outside.
  • It is past time to stop treating the “unhoused” as if they are one demographic. Very different needs call for very different interventions. 
  • There are 300+ beds at Oak Bay Lodge. 75 beds at Mt. Tolmie. There is Victoria Armoury.  S.J. Willis School, but for Vic High renovations, offers comparative insight.
  • These buildings and others that your staff can be tasked to find have facilities to maintain hygiene, safety and dignity.
  • Collectively, they provide configurations appropriate to the very different demographics represented among the unhoused: the needs are diverse. 
  • All can be properly addressed as a public health emergency when so declared.

Someone else wrote and suggested turning the historic Bank Street School into a shelter. I wholeheartedly agree that some of these are options worth exploring. Unfortunately Council does not have the authority to commandeer facilities owned by other governments for the purposes of providing shelter as we clearly saw in our attempts to secure Oak Bay Lodge. This Times Colonist article, CRD Directors Vote to Let Oak Bay Lodge Sit Vacant outlines the challenge.

A number of people also wrote asking if I would support The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness 6-Point Plan to end homelessness in Canada. Yes!

And someone took the time to submit a drawing for a tiny home.

I appreciate the orientation towards solutions. In a crisis, every idea put forward to solve it deserves consideration. There are some folks working on ideas for Temporary Tiny Towns. Others are looking to see if we can set up large tents (like the kinds you see at festivals, but with sides) in parking lots across the region. Inside each of the large tents would be intentional clustered communities of 30 smaller tents. I’m throwing my energy and support into exploring as many of these ideas as possible. We also need the next government – whoever it may be – to step in and immediately address the mental health and addictions issue. As myself and my fellow mayors in the BC Urban Mayor’s Caucus wrote in our Blueprint for BC’s Urban Future, we need solutions immediately, in months not years.

A Personal Note
Every Sunday morning I go for a run. During my past few runs I’ve noticed something interesting. I noticed that most often when I’m running I’m just looking down at the ground a few steps in front of me. This is good and necessary for sure, to make sure I don’t trip. But it’s really limiting and narrow. All I can see is the ground in front of me. Last Sunday, I looked up, looked ahead, as far ahead as I could see. My view widened and it felt good to see the bigger picture and the longer term. This morning when out for a run, about half way through, I remembered to look up, look ahead. And when I did, I felt lonely – all that space in front of me.

We’re going through a really difficult time as a community right now and for many of us, for different reasons, we’re probably experiencing some of the most difficult circumstances in our lifetimes. What would it be like, what would it feel like, to look up together as a community, to look ahead. To know that this winter is going to be difficult. That we’ll have people camping in our parks in the wind and rain and snow. That this likely means some continued disruption and negative experiences for all of us.

While we’re looking at this situation in front of us, working hard to resolve it, can we also look to the future together, to the near future, next spring and summer when we’ve got people housed, when parks are once again for everyone. If we do this together, it may make it easier for all of us, and maybe just a little less lonely, a little more connected.

I’ll end as I did a few months ago now with a quote from a book that’s been a life line for me throughout the pandemic, Pema Chodron’s Comfortable With Uncertainty: 108 teachings on cultivating fearlessness and compassion. In teaching 102, she says, “As a result of compassion practice, we start to have a deeper understanding of the roots of suffering. We aspire not only that the outer manifestations of suffering decrease … We aspire to dissolve the myth that we are separate.”

With gratitude,

Lisa / Mayor Helps

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