The City’s new Fire Hall under construction on Johnson Street with 130 units of affordable housing on top.

Hello everyone,

Thanks for taking the time to write to me this past week. We’re still receiving quite a few emails on the topic of people sleeping outside. I’m writing back to everyone at once as I want to make sure to respond to all of you and to share information. If you’d like to stay in touch on this topic, you can follow my blog here. If you’d like to know about the efforts the City along with BC Housing, Island Health and other community partners are making to move people inside – we’ve set a goal of responding to the needs of 200 people for indoor sheltering by the end of 2020 – please read my blog posts from Sunday November 1st and Sunday October 25th. There is a lot of information in those posts on the work that’s happening and the progress we’re making to move people indoors.

This week most of the emails we’ve received are focused on bus passes, the installation of showers and the Community Care Tent in Beacon Hill Park to. So I’m going to focus on responding to those issues. After that I’ll respond to some of the other concerns you’ve raised about people camping in parks and share a report that Councillor Loveday and I are bringing to City Council this coming Thursday. It outlines the work we need to do as a community to get the people currently living in our parks inside, safe and secure with the supports needed and put an end for the need for people to shelter in parks.

As always, I’ll use headings so feel free to skip to the section that interests you. I do encourage you to read the whole email if you can – there’s lots of important information here. And from some of the emails we’ve received, it seems like some people might not have the full picture, especially when it comes to Beacon Hill Park.

Bus Passes and Showers
During the pandemic, each city across Canada has taken a different approach to ensuring that people living outside have access to showers. For example, in London Ontario, the YMCA opened its doors for people without homes to shower. In Edmonton there is a roving shower trailer that goes to different locations around the city.

In Victoria, when there was a large encampment in Topaz Park, there was a shower trailer set up there that was run by the service providers who were overseeing the operations of the camp. At the same time, the City provided additional funding to Our Place and also deployed City staff to ensure COVID-19 cleaning protocols could be followed in the Our Place showers when there was a large encampment on the Pandora corridor. Since people moved inside from those encampments in May, showers have been available at Our Place.

However, we’ve heard and learned that people living outside haven’t had adequate access to the showers at Our Place because they are not open long enough, because some people weren’t able to get there, and because some people didn’t feel comfortable leaving their important belongings in their tents while they went to shower. That’s why this week – with the leadership of Councillor Thornton-Joe – the City has accessed funding to keep showers open at Our Place seven days a week from 8am to 9pm; there are now 13 hours every day where people can access showers.

To help those who need to get there – and because of the leadership of Councillor Potts and the Community Social Planning Council – Council unanimously adopted a motion last Thursday to allocate up to $2800 per month for the next three months to pay for bus tickets for people who need to take the bus to get to showers. And, Our Place recognizes the need for people’s belongings to be safe. That’s why they’ve created space in their lockers for people to leave their belongings safely while they shower.

This is not a perfect solution. A perfect solution is that people live inside, in safe, secure housing. And that they can have a shower in their home, just like those of us who live inside do every day. But it’s a made-in-Victoria solution to providing access to showers, just as other cities across the country have come up with their own solutions.

Community Care Tent and Showers in Beacon Hill Park
Many of you wrote this week expressing support for the Community Care Tent that has been set up in Beacon Hill Park noting the value that it is providing to the people who are living outside. The majority of Council agrees that this is valuable. That’s why, hearing the concerns of the community about the need for this care tent, Council voted 7-1 at our meeting Thursday to direct staff to work with the community organizations running the tent to find an appropriate location for it nearby but not in the park.

Council has given direction. The tent can’t remain in the park. There is a really important piece of information that I hope everyone interested in this issue will take to heart and share with others. Beacon Hill Park is governed by the Beacon Hill Trust that dates back to 1882. The Trust dictates the kinds of activities that can happen in the park and the kind that can’t. The Trust has been tested in court a number of times and each time it has been upheld.

The Community Care Tent is not the kind of activity or structure that can remain in the park according to the Trust. This is really important and should be of concern to everyone who cares about the right for people to shelter in Beacon Hill Park. If the Community Care Tent is not removed, the City could be found to be in violation of the Trust. Being found in violation of the Trust is serious and could put the park at risk and some important uses that are valued by the community may not be able to continue.

The showers installed in the park fall into the same category. This is why Council worked hard to get a showering solution in place as outlined above. The showers also can’t remain in the park.

This is a situation where context and the bigger picture need to be considered so that we are able, collectively, to take care of and provide services to our most vulnerable residents. We’re all working towards the same end.

Following Council’s direction, and knowing that Council sees the need for the Community Care Tent, on Friday staff in Parks and Engineering worked hard to come up with a solution. We are grateful for their work to do so. On Friday evening Council got a note from our Director of Parks letting us know that representatives from Engineering worked on the technical requirements for where the tent could relocate. On Friday evening staff were advised by one person – speaking on behalf of the tent group – that they in fact had no interest in moving the tent to any new location. 

Some of you have appealed to staff directly. Council has given staff clear direction to come up with a compromise. If you have concerns about these issues, please write to mayorandcouncil@victoria.ca rather than to our staff.

Next Steps and the City’s Role
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve received so many emails outlining the challenges that sheltering in parks is having on everyone – those sheltering and those wanting to use the parks. And I’ve been updating weekly for a few months now on the actions that the City is taking. There seems to be one thing that I’m not communicating clearly enough, as each week we still receive emails like this one:

“You need to find a way to treat those addicted and break the cycle of supply and demand. Focus your energy towards this goal and not in the direction it appears to be heading. Housing people even if it were possible does not cure the addictions they carry. Medical intervention should be the mandate followed. Free tenting or housing just leaves the situation to continue to grow … I hope this  clarity will guide you and council to brighter days and better times for those less advantaged.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this email. But – and here’s the clarity – cities are not health care providers. Myself and the 12 other mayors in the BC Urban Mayors’ Caucus agree that the number one issue facing our cities across the province right now, is the untreated mental health and addictions crisis. There are people left on the street or living in motels with complex needs who need comprehensive medical care. We look forward to working hard alongside the new government to make sure that these needs are met, to everyone’s benefit.

So what can the City do? Here’s a excerpt from the report that Councillor Loveday and I are bringing to Council for consideration on Thursday. Our recommendations are at the end of the excerpt. You can read the whole report here.

Background
The recommendations here are a suite of actions that the City and its partners can take to work towards providing housing or indoor shelter with a path to permanent housing to everyone currently sheltering outdoors in the city and to put an end to 24/7 camping in city parks. We understand that not all of the solutions outlined in the recommendations will be implemented by March 31st. But we are confident that working together with BC Housing and Island Health, enough indoor spaces can be provided by March 31st while medium term solutions – like the construction of affordable, supportive housing on Yates Street and Meares Street through modular (quick) construction methods – will follow. There is urgency to act now with winter upon us. We believe that setting a goal to work towards will help focus and mobilize action. 

Additionally, doing this work together with the Province will result in savings for both parties. Earlier this year the Province spent a significant amount of money to run a tent encampment in Topaz Park. The Province has also supported the City through Emergency Management BC with roughly $500,000 in funding to help manage sheltering related costs during the Provincial State of Emergency. This year it is estimated that the City’s direct costs for managing sheltering in parks will be $1.4 million. For the 2021 budget – if the status quo remains – staff are estimating a $1.7 million expenditure for managing outdoor sheltering.

City of Victoria Support for Affordable Housing
The City of Victoria has been supporting the creation of affordable housing for at least a decade. The City of Victoria Housing Reserve Fund supports the creation of affordable housing through direct funding of units on a per-bedroom basis including $10,000 per bedroom for low-income units and $5000 per bedroom for moderate income units. The per bedroom basis incentives the creation of larger units. Non-profit developers often express that although it is a small contribution compared to those from senior levels of government, the City’s contribution helps to make projects viable.

The City created the 2016-2025 Victoria Housing Strategy which is currently in Phase Two (2019-2022). The Housing Strategy begins from the premise that housing is a human right and prioritizes actions that create affordable housing. The five key themes of Phase Two include prioritizing renters and renter households, increasing the supply of housing for low to moderate income households in Victoria, increasing housing choice for all Victorians, optimizing existing policies and processes, and trying new and bold approaches. As a result of COVID-19, Council has re-prioritized the Phase Two actions that will help to ensure housing security for renters.  

The City has also used City-owned land for the purposes of supporting affordable housing. Together with School District 61, the City has contributed land to a project on Caledonia Street, which, if approved, will see the creation of 158 affordable units. In Burnside Gorge the City has also contributed city land and partnered with SD61 for the creation of 88 units of affordable housing. On top of the City’s new fire hall on Johnson Street there are 130 units of affordable housing under construction. And the City has recently purchased land that could be used for affordable housing and other community purposes.

The City does not have constitutional jurisdiction over housing or the resources to provide housing and shelter. Yet it is clear that we have – and will continue ­– to do our part using the tools and resources available to us, in partnership with BC Housing and Island Health, other public agencies and non-profits, and the private sector.

City of Victoria Advocacy Efforts
The City of Victoria has worked hard over the past six years to advocate for housing funding from the provincial and federal governments. It was a motion from Victoria City Council to the CRD that resulted in the beginnings of the CRD Regional Housing First Program. It was CRD staff that took the idea from Victoria Council and worked creatively to develop a program that resulted in a $40 million regional investment that was matched by $40 million from both the provincial and federal governments. This $120 million in funding has leveraged a total of $600 million in construction and will result in 2000 units of affordable and rental housing, including 400 units that rent at $375 per month. At this point, the majority of these units are being built outside of the City of Victoria.

In addition, Mayor Helps has been part of the Right to Home national municipal working group since the beginning of COVID-19. This national organizing and advocacy helped to shape the federal Rapid Housing Initiative and included the CRD securing $13 million through this initiative – the only regional district in the country to receive direct funding.

While both of these programs are regional in nature and have been initiated and supported by regional staff and elected officials across the region, the City’s efforts have been instrumental. 

Need for Shelter for all in Global Health Pandemic
People are sheltering in parks in the City and across the province and country because when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shelters had to reduce their numbers because of physical distancing measures. These physical distancing measures are still in place. 

We are now in the second wave of a pandemic that has hit seniors disproportionately. While it is unacceptable for anyone to be living outside in the middle of a global health pandemic, it is unconscionable that there are seniors living in tents when there is a recently vacated seniors home in our region. 

We respect that Oak Bay Council and the CRD are in a planning process for the future of the Oak Bay Lodge lands. We also understand that the building will be demolished at some point to make way for the new development. What we don’t think we should accept as a community is that it is more acceptable for seniors to spend the winter in tents than it is for them to spend the winter in a building recently vacated by seniors. 

Earlier in the pandemic there was a shortage of operators and not enough staff for temporary affordable housing sites. Recently a housing provider needed to hire 40 staff when they took over the running of a couple of housing sites; they were able to easily hire 40 staff who were trained to work in affordable housing sites. 

We recommend that the Province move seniors currently living in parks into a small portion of the Oak Bay Lodge until the building is demolished and secure an operator to run a small portion of the building. We understand that the building is in poor condition. We are certain that the condition of the building is better than a tent for a 70 year old. 

Recommendations

1.  That Council direct staff to work with a private land owner or to use city-owned land for the construction of temporary tiny home clusters of no more than 30 units beginning with one pilot project in Q1 of 2021 subject to the availability of one year of operating funding from BC Housing.

2.  That Council allocate a portion of the City’s federal-provincial restart money in early 2021 to help fund solutions that will move people indoors.

3.  That the City request the Province immediately open Oak Bay Lodge to people 55 years and older who are currently living in City parks until the vacant building is demolished for redevelopment.

4.   That the City indicate to the Province that it supports the use of the two sites recently purchased by the Province on Yates Street and Meares Street for affordable, supportive housing and encourages the Province to begin construction of modular housing on those sites as soon as possible, respecting the City’s design guidelines.

5.   That the City of Victoria works with the Province and other partners to offer housing or indoor shelter with a path to permanent housing for everyone currently sheltering in City parks by March 31st 2021 and directs staff to bring forward amendments to the Parks Regulation Bylaw so that the temporary measures including 24/7 camping expire on March 31st 2021. Final adoption of these amendments are to be scheduled once it is clear that adequate housing and shelter space will be made available by the March 31st deadline.

6.  That the City supports partner agencies in engaging people currently sheltering in City parks to determine their housing and support needs, to inform the operation of shelter and housing facilities and ensure access to safe and adequate housing for all. 

Thanks for reading all the way to the end of this very long email. As always, I know there is a lot of information in here. It’s really important to me that this is shared as widely as possible so that everyone in the community has access. Please feel free to forward. And to stay in touch, sign up here.

With gratitude,

Lisa / Mayor Helps

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