Thanks very much to everyone who took the time to write to me this past week on the topic of sheltering and related issues. I really value receiving your emails and I also appreciate this weekly opportunity to respond. For those of you who have written for the first time, this email is a response to as many questions as possible all at once. I also post it to my blog so if you want to stay up to date but don’t want to write to me every week, you can follow my blog here.
These emails tend to be long because there is a lot of information to share. For ease, there are headings so you can just skip to where you like. The first section is an update on the Decampment Working Group. Second I address your questions and comments. Third, I’ll reflect on a report from the Public Health Agency of Canada released this week, what it means for our community and what we can do about it. If you read nothing else, I’d encourage you to skip down to that part.
Decampment Working Group Update – Moves are Happening!
The Decampment Working Group – made up of the City, Island Health, BC Housing, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness and Our Place – meets weekly to help ensure that everything is in place to support people in moving from outside to inside. Last week I published the group’s August to February work plan, which is focused on moving at least 200 people inside by the end of the year. You can read it here. We know that people want to move in because the majority of people living outside have filled out applications for housing.
Some good news! At Friday’s meeting it was reported that eight more people will move inside as of November 1st. That makes 24 people finding housing since we started our work in earnest in early September. And more good news: Also as of November 1st, 11 people will be moving out of shelters, motels, or supportive housing into private market rental units freeing up space for 11 more people to move in from parks. This is the positive flow we’ve been working towards for the last few months and it’s great to see th efforts beginning to result in people moving into safe, secure and affordable housing with the supports they need.
One person who wrote this week has asked for “minutes” of the decampment working group. There are no minutes per se; each week we report in on the work plan (see last week’s blog post) and assign actions for the next week. It’s an action oriented and bureaucracy light group! It is my pleasure to provide an update in these weekly emails / posts so the community can follow some of the successes and challenges.
Our challenge right now is finding 100 more private market rental units at rents of no more than $825 per month – that’s the total amount of the shelter allowance plus a BC Housing / Island Health rent supplement. The average market rent for a bachelor or one-bedroom unit is somewhere between $1000 and $1500. So we’re going to need to get creative. For more details on the rent supplement program and how it works, you can read the Decampment Working Group Update from last Sunday. (It’s the first section of the post.)
Your Questions and Comments Addressed
Some of you have written this week and want quick action to get people out of parks. As you can see from the update above, as well as last week’s update and weekly updates since late August, there are no quick fixes to a complex situation like homelessness and the sometimes accompanying mental health and addictions issues. There is slow, coordinated, methodical work that takes as its starting point meeting the needs of those without shelter for safe, secure indoor housing with supports as needed. That’s the work we’ve been doing alongside BC Housing and Island Health since the onset of the pandemic. And it’s work that will continue.
One of you put it very thoughtfully: “Now the temperature is getting close to freezing and we do nothing ….I fortunately have been able to get my landlord to turn up my heat…a bit of a struggle and with many phone calls….this is beyond belief that we can leave people unhoused and freezing – I can say being cold without any hope of warming is truly inhumane. I have been cold in my home prior to landlord finally stepping in as one of the most horrible times I could imagine, yet I look across the street and see people trying to exist in this.”
A few people asked specifically about Central Park which has a disproportionate number of people living there. Central Park will continue to be an area of focus for the coming weeks to achieve bylaw compliance. This means that people will likely be moving to other parks around the city as a temporary measure.
Some of you have also suggested changes to better manage the outdoor sheltering situation including putting everyone in one outdoor area, like the gravel field in Beacon Hill Park. I addressed this in my post last week, so feel free to have a read through. Others have asked about bylaw enforcement of the current rules and have made some suggestions as to how to achieve compliance with the City’s current bylaws. Thanks for the suggestions, I’ll pass them along to our bylaw staff.
Our bylaw officers and our parks staff are all working really hard out there to ensure that the bylaws are followed, for the safety and security of everyone concerned. It’s not easy work as there are over two hundred people sleeping outdoors in various parks, all trying to meet their basic needs for shelther, warmth and food. Bylaw staff can’t be everywhere at once. It is definitely a dance.
Some Oaklands and Fairfield residents have written requesting that the bylaws be changed to require 8 metres between tenting sites and private property lines. My understanding is that there are a couple of councilors who propose to bring forward a recommendation to change the bylaws accordingly. Each time we change the bylaws it means printing new signs and new maps. And it means more confusion as to what is allowed where, and what is not, which makes achieving compliance more difficult.
But we are trying to balance as many needs as possible in this temporary situation we find ourselves in as a result of a global health pandemic, so if councilors make a motion to change the bylaws to require a certain distance between shelters and private property, I will support this. Changing bylaws takes at least two council meetings and then there are the sign and map changes that need to happen and after that education about the new rules, and then enforcement. So it is a bit of a process.
As in past weeks I’ve also heard concerns about people feeling like the use of parks is being constrained by people living in them, that some of the regular activities that happen in parks, like youth soccer, are being challenged right now. The bylaws require at least 8m between tents and playing fields. While that might not be as much of a buffer as some would like, it does provide access to playing fields.
As for sweeping the fields in advance of playing, I know this puts extra stress on the coaches and parents who are already working hard to meet COVID-19 safety protocols to keep youth sports going. I want to thank all the coaches and parents for working hard; outdoor youth sports are so important right now as a way to support youth mental health and also exercise. The pre-game or pre-practice field sweeping is for now, it’s not forever. And I’m grateful to have community members willing to do this work.
Some of you have suggested modular housing or building housing for people currently living without homes. This work is underway by the CRD through the Regional Housing First Program as well as through many non-profit housing providers like Pacifica and Cool Aid. Between the CRD, Pacifica and Cool Aid there are over 1000 units of affordable or supportive housing under construction or in the development process right now. This past week the CRD received notice of an additional $13.1 million through the federal government’s Rapid Housing Initiative. The federal government expects that this money we will build at least 52 units of housing by December 2021. It’s going to take regional effort to get this money working that quickly. In this CBC interview I talk about how we can do this and hopefully how we can get more than 52 units built!
Someone else wrote and provided some advice on how to approach and support landlords to provide rent supplements. Thanks for that; all good advice that we’ll incorporate into our approach. Someone else wrote this thoughtful email along the same lines:
“I heard your call for people who have space available to rent to someone who is currently homeless, unfortunately I do not have space. However, I do know that landlords are more likely to rent to individuals who are connected to services.
“I am curious to know if we could support people who are homeless by being a friend and helping them navigate the health, social services, and education systems etc. I’m thinking of retired nurses and social workers who might have expertise in these areas to fill the role of friend and navigator. What do you think? I would appreciate hearing your thoughts, particularly how feasible you think this idea might be. Thank you.”
This is a really important point. Some of the people who move into market rental units from supportive housing are all ready to live independently and without supports. Others are attached to Island Health teams who provide supports as needed. What I love about this email is the notion of “being a friend.” The Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness has a peer support program. It’s an amazing program run by people who have experienced homelessness, who are now securely housed and who are able to offer friendship and peer-support to others coming off of the streets.
Finally, here are a few questions and answers re: City resources:
- How many temporary hotels and/or housing complexes is the City currently financially supporting, in part or full, for people at risk?
The City doesn’t financially support housing; it is not part of the City’s mandate / jurisdiction.
- Can you list each temporary hotel and/or housing complex by neighbourhood?
Please inquire with BC Housing.
- To date, what is the operating and/or purchase cost from the City’s budget that is being used to support each of these temporary hotels and/or housing complexes since the provincial State of Emergency was declared?
The City has not purchased motels and doesn’t operate them so we have put no financial resources into these.
- To date, what is the operating and/or purchase cost from the City’s budget that is being used to support temporary tenting in City parks since the provincial State of Emergency was declared?
The current estimate is that by the end of the year, the City will have spent $1.15 million on managing homelessness and temporary encampments.
Pandemic Mental Health Impacts, How You Can Help, and Waterfront Walkway
I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, because I know that many of you who wrote to me this week and many reading this post didn’t write to me about your own feelings and how you’re coping with all the pandemic restrictions. But I’m worried about our community.
I’m worried about seniors who might be feeling especially isolated. I’m worried about kids who are living a very strange version of “normal” right now, with all the restrictions. I’m worried about parents who are extra stressed trying to hold down a job, and then having to pick up a child at school who has the slightest sniffle. I’m worried about all the teachers whose bubbles are very large, teaching and taking care of our kids. I’m worried about the nurses and doctors who have been working hard under incredibly stressful conditions for months. I’m worried about people who are sick and dying with very few loved ones by their sides, and about babies coming into the world without being greeted and passed around to loving family members and friends. And I’m worried about people who are living outside in tents at the onset of winter in the middle of a global health pandemic.
It turns out that my worries are well founded. A report released this week by the Public Health Agency of Canada outlines the effects of the pandemic in the lives of Canadians. The report shows that so many people are suffering mental health effects as a result of all the pandemic restrictions. What the research also shows is that the pandemic has not hit us all equally. People living in long-term care homes, low-wage workers, women, and people of colour have been disproportionately effected.
A CBC article that provides detailed coverage of the report notes that “seventy per cent of Canadians who responded to a recent Statistics Canada survey said they were concerned about maintaining social ties, while 54 per cent of respondents with kids said they were very or extremely concerned about their children’s loneliness or social isolation.”
The CBC report also notes that: “Efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 through social distancing and shutdowns have kept the Canadian caseload relatively low compared to other jurisdictions globally. But the overall health of the population has deteriorated over the last eight months, with more people turning to drugs, alcohol, tobacco and screen time over physical exercise to cope with the stress.”
With so many people struggling and suffering what are we going to do as a community to help each other get through? I have two ideas. Early in the pandemic I did a daily Facebook live address to give a COVID-19 update. Each day we would profile some of the amazing efforts happening in the community, and there were so many! People planting gardens for those who were food insecure. Seniors helping seniors. Youth helping seniors. Addressing youth mental health through poetry workshops. Online house concerts. The Times Colonist Rapid Relief Fund and $6 million raised in a short time to help those struggling. In the early months of the pandemic our community was overflowing with empathy-turned-action.
Let’s do it again! As pandemic fatigue sets in, as winter sets in, we need to rally as a community to take care of each other, to take care of the most vulnerable among us. Last night on our block there were three small outdoor Halloween gatherings. This has never happened before. It felt so good to sit in a socially distanced circle with my neighbours and to hear about how everyone was doing, what their struggles are right now. This is just one small example of an action to take. There are probably literally hundreds of things that each of us can do in our daily lives to buoy and support our friends, neighbours, co-workers and at the same time lift our own spirits a little. Please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) some of the inspiring things you’re doing or seeing where people are taking care of each other, and I’ll share them on my blog in the coming weeks.
My second idea is even simpler: take a walk, run, wheel, ride, skateboard, etc along the new waterfront walkway on Dallas Road.
This may go over better as an order from Dr. Henry than as a suggestion from me, but I’m making it anyway! It’s free. It’s outside. There’s lots of parking if you need to drive there. It’s flat, smooth, accessible. We’ve solved the dogs-off-lease issue for seniors and others who were scared to walk near large bounding dogs; there’s now one area for dogs off lease and a whole separate walkway for others. It’s so inspiring to be down there. And it’s good to remember that even though we are going through a really stressful, awful global health pandemic, we can breathe in the ocean air and take in the views. I feel gratitude to live in such a beautiful place. Please send me (email@example.com) your pictures enjoying the waterfront walkway and I’ll share them on my blog in the coming weeks.
Lisa / Mayor Helps