Hello everyone,

Thanks so much for your emails this past week. In keeping with my Sunday tradition, I’m writing back to all of you at once so that everyone’s emails get answered in a timely way and so that everyone has as much information as possible about sheltering, housing and other related matters. If you’d like to receive an email each week you can sign up here. If you’re interested in reading back through the Sunday emails to get caught up on the issues, you can also do so here.

Tiny Homes
Before I dive in specifically to address your concerns from this week, I did want to share an exciting project which was inspired in part by the many emails I’ve received over the past few months suggesting that we build tiny homes for people who are currently homeless. This week, Aryze Developments and the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness launched the Hey Neighbour tiny home campaign. They are raising $500,000 to build 30 temporary tiny homes to get people out of the weather as soon as possible. A site has yet to be confirmed; there are a number of options being explored.

Thanks for the good idea over the past few months! And to those of you who have written this week with suggestions for how the Tiny Home village could work, thank you. I’ll pass them along.

In just the first five days of the campaign they’ve raised $122,000. Charitable tax receipts are available through the Coalition. If you’re interested in learning more or donating you can head here.

Your Questions and Concerns Addressed
I’ve received emails this week from people who live near Central Park, Meegan/Beacon Hill Park, Gonzales Park, Vic West Park and Cecilia Ravine and from people who use Beacon Hill Park on a regular basis. You all sound like you’re at a breaking point – your frustration and anger come through loud and clear. You want things fixed. You want your parks back. You want to know what we are going to do. In some cases you are fearful, in others you say you’re just tired of the hassle of people camping in our parks. You want to know why it seems that bylaws aren’t being enforced. And why there is so much garbage everywhere. You also want to know why we can’t just have everyone in Meegan/Beacon Hill Park congregate at the gravel field.

I’m afraid that I don’t have many good answers to your questions, which I’m sure is not what you want to hear. We are in the middle of global health pandemic. It’s been over 280 days since the pandemic was declared; living like this is clearly weighing on all of us. We can’t see our friends or loved ones. Life is totally upside down. And on top of that, our much loved parks are full of people who have nowhere to go. And they really do have nowhere to go.

Our bylaw, public works and parks staff are out in the parks on a daily basis cleaning up and working to bring people into compliance with the bylaws. It is not easy work and they are doing their best. There are over 170 people camping in seven or eight parks so that’s a lot of people to connect with on a daily basis.

As for Meegan/Beacon Hill Park and concentrating everyone on the gravel field: We know from past experience that large, concentrated encampments don’t work for the people living in them or for the nearby neighbours. But also, as I’ve noted in previous emails / posts, even if we wanted to organize a camping service in Meegan/Beacon Hill Park, the Beacon Hill Trust, dating back to the 1880s prevents any organized service provision in the park. Again, probably not what you want to hear.

I jogged through Meegan/Beacon Hill Park this morning and I did see quite a few tents, and some sites in disarray with some belongings strewn everywhere. And I heard one person yelling and swearing. And honestly – and you might not like this either – what I thought to myself re: the belongings strewn everywhere is, “Well, I’ve got lots of extra belongings too and thankfully I have a basement to store them in.” And when I heard the person yelling, I thought how terrible it would be to have your yelling heard by everyone like that, whereas when most of us yell, it’s in the privacy of the four walls of our homes.

I’m not saying these things to say that everyone should think like me; I am just really wanting to illustrate that there are a variety of perspectives possible about the same situation. And that listening to and understanding these various perspectives is what creates a healthy community and democracy.

I do hear your perspectives and your concerns. That’s why we’ve set a realistic deadline of March 31 2021 to work with the Province and support them in offering people indoor spaces and ending 24/7 camping in all of our parks. Each week small progress is made moving people from outside to inside. But the progress is slow. All 60 units renting at $375 per month in the new buildings in Langford and View Royal have been filled, mostly by people living in supportive housing. This means that there are now – or will soon be – vacancies available for people living in shelters or parks to move into.

BC Housing has used 15 of the 60 rent supplements they have available, which means there are still 45 subsides left. Island Health has about the same number remaining. As I’ve said in past emails, with $375 income assisance shelter rate plus $450 for a rent supplement, the total available is well below market rent in the region. We’re still working creatively to fill that funding gap.

There are still spaces available at the New Roads Therapeutic Recovery Community in View Royal; a few people are moving in there each week. And there’s a space for about 30 youth that will be opening soon. And there are the 30 tiny homes. We will need the Province to open some more spaces, or top up the rent supplements further, or both, to achieve the goal of moving people inside by March 31st. But please know that there is a plan and everyone I know who works in the housing and outreach field and provincial ministers and staff are working hard to make it happen. Almost all of the people living in the parks have filled out housing applications or indicated their desire to move inside.

It is clear, as I’ve said before – and with this I think you would agree – that having people living in parks isn’t good for anyone, not the people living there or the people living nearby.

A few of you have written this week with concern for the youth who are gathering under the Johnson Street Bridge. You’re concerned about their health and well-being but also about the fact that they’re gathering at all when we’ve all been told to stay home. To be honest, I don’t know whether many of these kids have homes. But in response to your emails, I will ensure that the youth homelessness team at the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness connects with these kids, if they haven’t already, to see what kind of supports might be needed.

And finally, there have been some questions over the past few weeks about why there are no people camping in parks near where I live. Camping is allowed in Stevenson Park behind the Fernwood Commuity Centre. But unlike the parks where we’ve directed people for camping* it does not have a washroom. In early September, a motion was made at the Council table to prohibit camping within 100m of schools (instead of the 50m that was proposed). Even though the parents at South Park School wanted a buffer of 100m from their school, if I had voted for this 100m buffer, that would have also meant banning parking in Stevenson Park, so I voted against it, which kept Stevenson Park on the list and available for camping.

When schools closed earlier in the pandemic, I also suggested using Vic High (I live two doors down) as a shelter. This didn’t pan out because of the impending construction. I also suggested that the vacant land behind Vic High might be good for sheltering, but this too will soon be under construction. What is proposed to be built there is 154 units of affordable housing, including 20% of units that will rent at $375 per month and are for people coming out of homelessness or out of supportive housing. I look forward to welcoming my new neighbours, should Council approve the development to go forward.

By-Election Results and City Budget
I wanted to also share the by-elections results with all of you, in case you hadn’t heard. Last night Stephen Andrew was elected to fill the ninth seat on Victoria Council which has been vacant since August 2019 when Laurel Collins left to run for MP. I spoke with Stephen last night to congratulate him and to let him know I’m looking forward to working with him. It will be good to have nine of us at the table again. Being shorthanded for this long has meant extra work for the rest of us. It has also meant a few tie votes on key items, and motions fail on a tie.

In addition to helping our new colleague settle in, a key decision on the horizon is the 2021 budget. Council reviewed the draft budget in great detail in November and asked many questions of staff through motion that we’ll get a report back on in January. Now, it’s time for you to weigh in! Staff have created a really great budget survey this year – more direct and user friendly than in past years. The survey results will help to guide Council’s decision on the final budget in the new year.

All of you who have written to me – and those who read these weekly posts – obviously care deeply about our city. The budget is the most important decision Council makes each year. So a final piece of holiday homework from me is a request that you take the time to fill out the budget survey. With my thanks in advance.

Happy Holidays
This will be my last Sunday email / blog post of 2020. I’m going to take the next few Sundays and hopefully a few more days than that of quiet time and rest. Your emails will be gathered up and I’ll respond to them on Sunday January 3rd.

It’s been quite the year for all of us in Victoria, BC, Canada, and the world. As we awoke on January 1 2020, COVID-19 was a world away and few could have anticipated the toll it would take this year on our seniors, health care workers, small businesses, governments, and on each and every one of us. No one is exempt, everyone has been impacted, although not everyone has been impacted equally.

Seniors in care homes have been most vulnerable, with the majority of deaths in BC taking place in those settings. Women, youth, people of colour and Indigenous people working in low-paying service jobs that were the first to be cut have suffered economically. Our beloved small businesses were hit disproportionately hard. And of course, as oft discussed here in Victoria and in cities across the country and around the world, when everyone was told to “stay at home”, those who didn’t have homes really stood out, as they were left outside.

2021 will be year of hard work and recovery. And as we implement both the regional Reboot Strategy as well as Victoria 3.0 our job – as a whole community, province and country – is to leave no one behind.

I wish you and your loved ones a safe, socially distanced, but close-in-heart holiday season.

With love,
Lisa / Mayor Helps

*With the exception of Central Park – in that instance people showed up there and we had to adapt to the circumstances and provide washrooms and running water.

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