Thanks so much to everyone who has written to me this past week. In order to answer your emails in a timely way – and to make sure that everyone has the same information – I’m writing back to all of you at once. As always, I’ll use headings so you can just skip down to the topic of interest. If you’ve got a bit of time, I’d love if you would read the whole thing. If you’d like to stay in touch and receive these emails each week, you can sign up here on my website.
This week I was copied on 91 form letters addressed to the Premier and Ministers Robinson, Fleming and Simpson, Grace Lore MLA for Victoria-Beacon Hill and Andrew Wilkinson. The form letter called on the Province to take control of the situation in Victoria and end 24/7 camping in parks immediately.
We haven’t stopped working with the provincial government since May when the Province rented motels, provided health supports and moved over 400 people inside in a matter of a few weeks. We meet weekly with BC Housing and Island Health and we are grateful for the ongoing spirit of partnership with which both agencies are undertaking the work of addressing homelessness, mental health and substance use.
We can’t end 24/7 camping immediately as there aren’t enough indoor spaces for everyone living outside in our parks and public spaces, especially with the recent fire at Capital City Centre, which I’ll say more about below.
We want to make Dr. Henry happy by following her advice and not displacing anyone from encampments in the middle of a global health pandemic until there are indoor options available. We want to make the Premier and many of our housed residents happy by ending 24/7 sheltering. And we want to work to provide the vulnerable people living outside with housing and the supports they need. We want them to have the safety that those of us who live in houses enjoy – a door to lock behind us each night. Council has set a goal of March 31st to achieve this, and we are going to need the Province’s help and support; we’re grateful that they’re working alongside us.
Community Care Tent, Showers and Water at Central Park
Some of you have written to us upset or angry about the removal of the Community Care Tent and showers at Meegan/Beacon Hill Park on Friday morning. This was a very difficult situation for everyone involved.
For what it’s worth – hopefully at least worth a read – I’d like to try to fix the game of broken telephone that social media has become and to share a few facts. As I’ve said in my blog posts over the past two Sundays, the tent and the showers were in violation of the Beacon Hill Trust and could not be allowed to remain. Instead of immediately removing the tent when it was set up on October 20th, staff posted a notice that the tent was in violation of the Parks Bylaws (which also reflects the Beacon Hill Trust) and asked that it be removed. See my blog post from last week to learn more.
Over the next few weeks staff and Councillor Potts worked hard with the volunteers who had set up the tent and the showers to find a new location for the them adjacent to the park – so the much needed services could be provided. Staff noted that the tent and the showers could both be relocated to an area adjacent to the park and provided information as to how the City could help to make this happen and what the volunteers needed to do as well. All of this can still happen and indeed the City has created a $100,000 grant program to help. More on that below.
But in the meantime, the showers were discharging grey water directly into the City’s storm drain system. And the care tent had a number of generators, gas cans, and other dangerous combustible materials. As the government, we need to balance safety needs with other needs. And we need to balance the immediate needs of those in Beacon Hill Park with the responsibility of the City to ensure that the park is available to all residents of Victoria for all uses for the long term. If the City is found by the courts to be in violation of the Trust, the risk is that we could lose the park altogether. This wouldn’t be good for anyone neither those currently sheltering nor the rest of the general public.
Some of you have said that the Beacon Hill Trust is a tool of colonization and that we should just ignore it for that reason. I agree that it is a colonial tool. And the City of Victoria is a colonial government. But for the reasons outlined above and last week, we can’t simply ignore the Trust, we have to uphold our responsibility under it.
I’ve also received emails (and I’m know this is also circulating on social media) about the police dismantling the tent and throwing everything inside into the garbage. The police were there to ensure that the bylaw officers and the contractors the City hired to help could do their work, so that neither members of the public or the workers would get injured. All of the items in the tent were carefully labelled and organized and are being stored and are available to be picked up from City bylaw. Nothing was thrown out. We recognize the hard work of the volunteers who want to help and those who brought donations.
One more update: I got an email asking why the drinking water had been turned off at Central Park this week. When people started to move to Central Park, City staff set up a water station so there would be access to potable water. Recently as it’s gotten colder out, the station – which was designed as a temporary measure – began to freeze. Staff turned it off for a short period so they could fix it and get it ready for winter. As of Friday the water was running again.
$100,000 Grant Program to Address Immediate Needs
We are 10 months into a global heath pandemic and people have been living outside during this time with a hodge podge of health and hygiene services provided by the City, service providers and volunteers. There’s still a gap.
On November 5th the City learned that it would receive $6.5 million in federal-provincial “restart” money to help address budget shortfalls and other needs as a result of COVID-19. On November 19th, Council created a $100,000 grant program with some of this money in order to help meet the still unmet needs of people living outdoors, including mobile hygiene/shower services and some of the other services that were offered by the care tent in Meegan/Beacon Hill Park.
The grant applications are due this Wednesday, November 25th. Council will evaluate them November 26th and the funds will be dispersed as soon as possible after that so that these necessary services can be provided. We’re looking for creative, innovative ideas. The application form can be found here.
For those of you who are looking for updates on the number of people being housed, on Friday the Community Wellness Alliance Decampment Working Group which is made up of BC Housing, Island Health, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness and Our Place, decided that BC Housing, Island Health and the Aboriginal Coalition would provide monthly updates on the movement of people from supportive housing into market housing and from parks to supportive housing. I’ll share the progress updates on my blog. Of course we will respect everyone’s privacy and only numbers of people will be shared, not names or locations.
And speaking of progress, we’ve run into a few hurdles to our goal of moving 200 people inside by the end of the year. We look forward to the new provincial government getting sworn in and helping us further to sort through some of these challenges.
The first hurdle was the fire at the Capital City Centre that displaced 84 people. Everyone had to move out. The motel is being repaired and people will be moving back in when it is ready. But not all the rooms will be available and we don’t know how many – if any – will be available before the end of the year. That means that some of the units we were counting on to move people into – the 60 new Regional Housing First Units in Langford and View Royal that are opening this month and next, and the 110 rent supplement units – will be needed by people displaced from Capital City Centre.
Additionally, we’ve been bending our brains for the past few weeks with Island Health, BC Housing, the United Way of Greater Victoria and Devon Properties to figure out how to creatively fill the gap between the $825 total rent available with a rent supplement and the monthly market rents in the region that range from $1200-$1500 per month. Please email me firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any ideas! Others have been working on a program to support landlords who are considering renting to people who are ready to move out of supportive housing and into the private market.
So of course we’re not giving up because we believe that housing is a human right and winter is here and no one should be outside. But we’re going to need some more help to meet the year-end goal.
About Everything Else
A few of you have written and said that I am overly concerned with people who are homeless and don’t care about anyone or anything else. It’s true that this is a really pressing issue for all of us right now. And it’s true that Council, the City’s senior leadership team, and especially our front line staff across many departments are working hard on this issue right now, both to manage it and to help develop solutions. It’s the issue that fills up my email inbox the most. And it’s the issue that tends to fill the papers and newscasts, in addition, of course to news and information about COVID-19.
But I do want you all to know that while I’m spending a lot of time, energy and convening power on addressing homelessness, we’re working hard on everything else too. Our staff are out there every day providing over 200 services directly to residents and businesses. Garbage is being picked up, clean water is coming out of our taps, potholes are being filled, etc.
As for me, I considered putting a screen shot of my calendar from last week here so you could see all the other things I’m working on, but it looked way too crammed and kind of impossible to read. Then I thought I might make a long list of all the projects that we’re working on to help small businesses recover from COVID-19, to diversify our economy for the future, to address climate change and so on.
But I don’t think you want snapshots of calendars, or lists. I think you just want to know that I’m listening and that I hear you. Since late August I’ve been reading hundreds of emails weekly and responding in what I hope is a heartfelt, direct and honest way. I’m listening. And I hear you. I hear you in all your diversity of opinion: those of you who think we’re not doing enough to support people who are living without homes and those who think we are doing too much; those of you who think the city is going downhill and those of you who are happy about all the changes you’re seeing as we prepare for the future.
I hear your anger, your frustration, your fear. I hear your gratitude and your generosity. I hear how difficult a time this is for some people, for so many reasons. None of us have lived through a global health pandemic, and I certainly didn’t expect to be the mayor leading through one! I hear you when you say it is a really difficult time. And I hope you hear me when I say that we will get through this, together.
Lisa / Mayor Helps