Thanks to those of you who have emailed me this past week with questions, thoughts and suggestions on sheltering in parks and related issues. We’re still receiving quite a few emails on this topic, so I’m writing all of you back together. If you’d like to stay in touch and stay updated on progress on a weekly basis, please follow my blog here as I post these emails there as well.
These emails tend to be long, as there are always lots of good questions to address and also information to share. To make it easier to navigate, I’ve created sections. Please just scroll to what interests you. First I’ll give a decampment update. Second I’ll address your questions and comments. Third, I have some birthday wishes. And finally, I share a press release from Friday about new affordable and supportive housing units in the city. If you do feel like skipping through the email/post pretty quickly, I’d encourage everyone to at least read the birthday section.
Decampment Working Group Update
I’ve been writing about the Community Wellness Alliance Decampment Working group for many weeks now and giving updates in Sunday emails on our progress. One of the members of the public who spoke with Council at our meeting last Thursday asked if we could make public the minutes from the weekly Decampment Working Group meetings. We don’t take minutes, per se. Each week we review the work plan, report in on priority actions – who has done what in the past week, and what will we each commit to doing next week. I’ve shared the work plan with all of you here so that everyone knows that there is good, hard, earnest, weekly work going on to move people from outside to inside as soon as possible.
Last week in the Decampment Working Group update section of my blog post, I outlined a plan for how we will work together to move 200 people inside by the end of the year. You can read that here.
This past week we have seen positive media coverage and the community beginning to rally around this goal. Thank you! CHEK shared our ambitious plan and also Steve’s story. He’s been living in an Our Place shelter for three years and he’s ready to move into his own place. CTV spoke with the Executive Director of Our Place and asked if this 200 person bold and ambitious plan was possible. He said yes! The Times Colonist did a great article on the 110 rent supplements available from BC Housing and Island health. And I was interviewed on CBC Thursday to provide more details. Please take the time to listen to the CBC interview. I explain the plan in quite a bit of detail.
A key part of the plan are rent supplements. These are a top-up provided by BC Housing and Island Health to the income assistance rate which makes it possible for people to move from supportive housing into market rental units. There are 110 rent supplements available. And then people can move from parks into the supportive housing units that are vacated.
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. If you know of any vacancies anywhere in the region for November 1st, December 1st or January 1st and would like to help, please email email@example.com and I’ll get you connected directly with BC Housing.
This past week one more person moved inside out of a park and into the Therapeutic Recovery Community in View Royal as a result of our work. Since we began in early September, that makes a total of 16 people who have moved inside. We still have a long way to go. The BC Housing representative was not at the meeting Friday so I’m not able to give a report on how many new rent supplement units may have been secured in the past week.
Your Questions and Comments Addressed
Someone has asked how long the rent supplements last and how people will be chosen for these units. Others who are concerned about camping in neighbourhood parks like Oaklands, Pemberton, Wesley, Hollywood, Gonzales, Irving and Regatta landing have asked Council to take these parks off the list of places where people can camp. Others have asked why we don’t designate the large gravel field in Beacon Hill Park as a campground and run it as such, marking out the area for tents; someone else suggested allocating tent permits across the city.
The Island Health rent supplements last as long as people need them. I wasn’t able to get an answer about the BC Housing rent supplements this past week but will next week. As for how people are chosen for these units, everything goes through the Coordinated Assessment and Access (CAA) process run by BC Housing, Island Health and the CRD. In the CBC interview I mentioned above, I lay this out really clearly.
In terms of neighbourhood parks, you can see the conundrum we’re in. Everyone wants camping banned in their neighbourhood park for what I think are really good and defensible reasons. But if we ban camping in all the parks listed above, there won’t be enough places for people to go. And we’ve seen repeatedly that large encampments simply don’t work. But what I can say, is that there has to be an end date set at some point for 24/7 camping in parks. As of last night, we have an NDP majority government that has made significant investments in housing already and committed on the campaign trail to making more and to address the needs of people with complex mental health and addictions issues. As the BC Urban Mayors’ Caucus (which I co-chair) said in our Blueprint for BC’s Urban Future, we need and expect immediate action. In months not years.
Once the new government is seated in the legislature, we’ll begin our work with them again. And, I haven’t given up on Oak Bay Lodge. That 300-bed senior’s facility is sitting vacant while seniors are living in tents in our parks. We’ll work with the new government, and our newly elected MLA Grace Lore, and we’ll put a plan in place, with them, to house the people who are currently living in our parks. And then we’ll end 24/7 camping. We cannot do this alone.
As for the suggestion of setting up an organized campground in Beacon Hill Park, there is a Trust from the 1800s governing the use of the park and as per the terms of the Trust the city can’t organize any activity in the park.
Many of you have written about the complex challenges of mental health and addictions, and have noted that the people living outside with these conditions shouldn’t be moved from park to park or disbursed through the city. One person – that echoes the concerns of many wrote: “There is no easy resolution to homelessness, as these individuals need early interventions, harm reduction, appropriate mental health supports and medical care – which all require sustainable funding from senior levels of government. However, I fail to understand how dispersing this complicated community into Victoria’s greens spaces is in any way an effective solution for them, or for other vulnerable populations like children or seniors.”
Having people living with mental health and addictions challenges living in parks is not an effective solution. That’s why we’re working hard with BC Housing and Island Health through the Decampment Working Group to address this. It’s not good for anyone neither the people using parks for sheltering, nor the people who feel that they can’t use parks because people are using them for shelters. With the pandemic, need for outdoor recreation is more important than ever. So is safe, secure housing. How can you stay home if you’re sick, if you don’t have a home. We’re between a rock and a hard place, and we’re working every day to dig ourselves out.
A resident who has just moved to Victoria from Ontario six weeks ago (welcome!) asked: What is happening with the old Mt. Tolmie hospital property? How could the city assist property owners willing to convert their sprawling bungalows into 2-3 suite homes? Are there any homes with multiple rooms or suites vacant due to students not physically present in UVic off-campus housing?
My understanding is that Mount Tolmie hospital is being held as a space for self-isolation if people who are currently living outside test positive for COVID-19 and can’t stay at home because they don’t have one. With respect to the City making house conversions easier, yes! As noted in the press release below, on Thursday Council passed a series of bylaw changes to make it easier to turn single family houses, into houses with suites. And, we’ve created incentives for more affordable housing in these house conversions as well. The new, hot-off-the-press regulations are here and our planning staff are standing by to assist. It’s very exciting! In terms of UVIC, we approached them earlier this year about potentially partnering to address homelessness. UVIC doesn’t have any off-campus housing, and all their residence rooms are filled as much as physical distancing requirements allow.
Thanks also for your suggestions. Someone shared this video from Los Angeles about modular housing. These are units that can be built more quickly than conventional construction; once complete they look like regular apartment buildings and last a long time. This is something that BC Housing funds. They have purchased two pieces of land in Victoria one on Meares Street and one on Yates Street to build modular housing . Once again someone suggested buying or leasing a cruise ship to house people; this idea keeps coming up. I have passed it along to BC Housing.
Someone wrote: “I recognize your challenge to find suitable accommodation for the homeless. Many years ago on a visit to Vienna, Austria, I was impressed by community gardens that also permitted small residences. These small homes had originally been built as huts to house garden tools but had been permitted by municipal regulations to become permanent residences, some even 2 stories high, all pleasing to the eye. Productive gardens including vegetables & flowers were everywhere. The purpose was to give apartment dwellers an opportunity to garden. Some eventually moved to their gardens. Could this idea
be adapted to meet the homeless situation in Victoria?”
The City has a garden suite program. Anyone with a single family home can build a suite in their backyard. A few years ago Council significantly cut the red tape to make it easier to for homeowners to do so. There is no longer a political process, homeowners follow the design guidelines set out and work with staff. We also have in our Housing Strategy a plan to allow tiny homes – which are much less expensive to build than a conventional garden suite – in backyards, but we’re not quite there yet.
With respect to showers, someone suggested that the people living outside be tasked with managing a shower program themselves with some support and oversight. They wrote, “Could a possible solution be to see if there are willing and able people within the group of those staying in these places who could maintain the shower and bathroom facilities themselves? If so, could we explore creating cleaning and maintenance crews from these groups of people. We could supply all the necessary cleaning supplies and create a schedule. We could also explore if there is an option to compensate them, recognizing of course that this could be somewhat complicated. I fully appreciate that the homeless, mental health and addiction issue you’re trying to manage is incredibly complex. I chose to send this email simply because I believe people of all walks and ages do better when they have some level of responsibility, or job or purpose.”
The showering issue is difficult and we haven’t managed to figure it out yet. But the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness and other service providers and advocacy groups are working with people living outside to see how something like this might be possible.
Two Birthday Messages
This past week, in two very different ways, two birthdays were brought to my attention. The father of child turning seven this weekend wrote to me and said he had to move his child’s birthday party from a small neighbourhood park because there were people camping there, close the playground. Bylaw said they’d attend to ensure that the new rules (8m space between tents and playgrounds) would be followed. But it’s a very small park and the father felt that it would still be better to move the birthday party. He wrote that of course the party can’t be indoors because of the pandemic, but it also now can’t be in his neighbourhood park. It was a kind email, but also shared frustration and sadness about the city’s inability to deal quickly with this complex situation. I wish the seven-year-old a happy birthday and I hope that they and their friends had a good time. I thank the dad too for writing to us, to share this story.
This weekend marks another birthday. Today is Michael’s 44th birthday. He’s currently living in Oaklands Park. When the City’s new bylaws came into effect, essentially limiting the number of people in any one park, he made the first move from Central Park to settle elsewhere to test the neighbourhood reaction and win them over before slowly bringing in others he felt needed to be somewhere quieter. Two of the oldest guys – both 70 years old – who had been living in Central Park moved with Michael to Oaklands Park.
When he set up there, Michael established the sentiment of respect and quiet and cleanliness in Oaklands Park and it is currently being upheld by those living there. As of Friday night there were six tents and two bike trailer structures with 8 men and one dog. Two weeks ago there was no one camping there. Because of the tone that Michael set, the older folks are still in the park daily for pickelball and teens are still playing street hockey at end of Shakespeare Street.
Michael works every day, as a flagger on construction sites. When he gets “home” he invites people to throw Frisbees in the sports field in the afternoons and to talk and play chess at night. According to the resident who shared this story with me, Michael is the emotional glue that brings love and belonging and community to the park he’s living in. To Michael, deep thanks and Happy Birthday. I’m sorry that you have to spend your 44th birthday living in a park.
We can and must do better as a city, region province, and country. Winter is coming, it’s cold out there this weekend. We can and must do better. We’ve got to get at least 200 people inside by the end of the year, and we’ve got to work to help the rest who are currently living outside very soon. We must do this so that seven year olds can spend their birthdays in the park and so that forty-four year olds don’t have to.
Lisa / Mayor Helps
Council Approves 72 New Affordable Housing Units
Date: Friday, October 23, 2020For Immediate Release
VICTORIA, BC — Last night, Victoria City Council approved a total of 72 net new housing units for low-income and vulnerable residents at two properties located at 330 Michigan Street in the James Bay neighbourhood and 736 Princess Street in the Burnside Gorge neighbourhood.
The new affordable housing development on Princess Avenue will be owned and operated by the Victoria branch of the John Howard Society and will remain rental and affordable at very low-income levels for at least 60 years. The John Howard Society strives to build safe and inclusive communities by helping vulnerable people achieve greater independence so that they can change their lives.
“This project is more than simply supportive housing. It brings job readiness and life skills training, counselling and supportive housing under one roof to enable clients to become contributing members to their community. Our approach speaks to the principle that the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members,” says Manj Toor, Executive Director of the John Howard Society. “We’re grateful to Council for approving this project and giving us an opportunity to not only support people to have better lives but to enrich our community at the same time.”
Some of the innovations and amenities at this new building include a ground floor coffee shop and art gallery that will operate as a social enterprise and provide an opportunity for the John Howard Society to implement their employment readiness program and allow local artists to showcase and sell their art. In addition, approximately 46 percent of the total floor area will be dedicated to commercial and community services that will add jobs in the neighbourhood and offer employment training and community services for residents and clients who are supported by the John Howard Society.
“This is another important step forward to providing people options for a roof over their head and a safe secure place to call home,” said Mayor Lisa Helps. “I also appreciate the John Howard Society leading the way in providing five of the 28 units that exceed the accessibility requirements of the British Columbia Building Code and providing such inclusive homes and reducing barriers for people.”
The current affordable housing complex on Michigan Street is owned and operated by the Capital Regional Housing Corporation (CRHC) and has four multi-family residential buildings. CRHC will retain the heritage building and demolish three old buildings to make way for two new four-story multi-family buildings for a total of 106 units, a net increase of 44. All units within both the new and existing buildings will remain affordable and will provide much needed housing options for Victoria’s lower income earners.
“I have had the pleasure of seeing this exciting project develop through its various stages, and to see it taking its next step to completion is very gratifying for the CRHC,” said David Screech, Mayor of View Royal and Vice-Chair of the CRHC Board. “With this decision, more seniors, families, those in need of provincial assistance and those with a range of abilities will be able to find the stable, secure and quality housing they desperately need.”
Another item that went to public hearing and adopted by Victoria Council last night was new Housing Conversion Regulations. These new guidelines will make it easier to convert houses to multiple units in order to create more rental, affordable rental and affordable home ownership units, while incentivizing heritage designation.
“We know Victoria needs more housing options, both for renters and homeowners and these changes increase the number of eligible homes that qualify for home conversions,” said Helps. “Hundreds of units of housing have been created since housing conversions were introduced in the 1950s and expanding the program will encourage more rental housing, more affordable home ownership opportunities, and more two-and-three-bedroom units.”
Victoria’s Housing Strategy includes several policies to address housing and affordability in our community and provides guidance for housing policies and initiatives that meet residents’ needs across the housing continuum. This housing includes non-market housing, affordable rental housing, market rental housing, and affordable or entry-level ownership.