Flood at Central Park December 22-23, photo from North Park Neighbourhood Association

Hello everyone,

Thanks for your emails over the past few weeks. As those of you who are regular correspondents will know, I took a couple weeks break from writing Sunday emails. For those of you who are receiving a Sunday email for the first time, it’s because you’ve written in the past couple of weeks with questions, concerns, or ideas about outdoor sheltering, housing, or those without homes in our community.

In order to be efficient and also to ensure that everyone has as much information as possible, I answer all your emails here. I also post this email on my blog and have been doing so weekly since late August. If you want to stay in touch to learn about the work that the Province, federal government, City and community are doing to create indoor sheltering opportunities, you can follow my blog here. If you’d like to catch up on all the information you may have missed during the fall, you can start here in August and read to here in December. Do make a cup of tea as it’s a lot of reading!

In order to make it easy to read these lengthy emails, I use headings so you can skip to what you’re interested in. Today I’ll begin with a pressing issue which many of you wrote about – the flood response in Central Park. Then I’ll give a general update on indoor sheltering and approach to consultation over the next few months. Next I’ll address your questions, concerns and suggestions. Finally, in a section called “Christmas Oranges,” I outline acts of extreme generosity and kindness I witnessed over the holiday season. If you’ve got the time I encourage you to read the whole email.

Flood response in Central Park
On the morning of December 23rd, the people living in Central Park awoke to their tents and belongings under water. Many of you wrote concerned about their fate. In some of those emails you called on the Province to reopen the Save on Foods Memorial Arena as a shelter and to take other immediate actions. I want to assure you that our colleagues at BC Housing haven’t stopped working on options over the holidays.

A group of faith leaders from a range of faiths got together and emailed this letter to City Council and provincial officials:

Dear Elected Leadership – in this Season of HOPE,

We are writing to you as a broad based diverse coalition of South Island clergy who represent thousands of concerned congregants.  

We first want to acknowledge, in gratitude, how much work and energy that British Columbia Housing, and you, our local leadership are doing throughout this pandemic to secure shelter options for the unhoused in our community.  The size and scope of the challenge feels daunting at present and we are thankful that our current Provincial government and Victoria’s local mayor and council are strong advocates for our unhoused siblings.  

We also acknowledge that what is being accomplished at present is simply not enough. 

Shelter needs to be recognized as a basic human right.  Housing is a prime determinant of health and now in the midst of a pandemic and extreme weather conditions we are in a crisis.  Those who try to serve the homeless are exhausted dealing with battered tents, floods, snow and ice. 

On behalf  of  our congregations of Victoria, who are waking up to this crisis and wake up at night during these extreme weather conditions, and care about those  who have no homes to “isolate” from  Covid-19, this winter,  we ask you to please do whatever is possible to provide immediate indoor shelter for those who need and want to relocate  from the parks.  

We fully recognize that in the midst of this emergency there is no time to worry about nimbyism.  We understand that the limited solutions that we currently hold have costs and discomforts.  We recognize that temporary indoor housing is not a long term solution to end homelessness.  

We ask that you make bold and immediate decisions to literally get our homeless siblings out of the mud.  We must do this before we are all held accountable for a death that occurs through exposure.  

Those currently suffering cannot afford to wait.  Please let us know how our congregations can be a part of the solution.  Shelter is essential to human life and dignity for the vulnerable who are parts of the sacred fabric of our community.  

Let us act swiftly, In peace,

Faith Leaders of Victoria BC 

Many people leapt into action to help after the flood, from City staff, BC Housing, the North Park Neighbourhood Association (more on this below), the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, the Emergency Weather Protocol and others. Within a few days, people were relocated to a drier area a block away at the Royal Athletic Park (RAP) parking lot. While this is better than living in a flooded park, it is not good enough in a country as prosperous as Canada in the middle of a global health pandemic. Hence the hard work needed in the next 90 days to move people indoors (more on this below).

And it’s not only BC Housing, Island Health, housing and social service providers and city officials who are going to need to work hard. It is all of us. To the faith leaders, and all the others who wrote demanding action – thank you for your care, concern and commitment. You can help by:

  • Continuing to speak of our “unhoused siblings” reminding everyone that people living without homes are our fellow humans, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters
  • Donating to the Tiny Home project
  • Offering up church parking lots or other church properties for Conestoga Huts (more on this below)
  • Sponsoring someone to move into a market rental unit by helping to close the gap between a rent supplement ($825 per month) and market rent for a bachelor or one-bedroom

Indoor Sheltering and Approach to Consultation
As hopefully everyone is aware, City Council passed a motion in November that set a date of March 31st 2021 to end 24/7 camping in parks. Since we are still in the middle of a global health pandemic and a Provincial State of Emergency where “stay at home” has been key medical advice, Council’s willingness to end 24/7 camping is contingent on everyone currently living outdoors in a park being offered a 24/7 indoor sheltering opportunity.

With the deadline of March 31st set, BC Housing and Island Health are providing a monthly update on the number of people who move indoors. The first report was December 15th for the month of November when 37 people living outside or on the brink of doing so were moved indoors with the supports and care that they needed. This is a good start.

Over the next three months, working together, we need to secure close to 200 spots for everyone still out there as the rain falls and the wind blows. Not all of these 200 spaces will be permanent housing right away. We’ll need to rely on a combination of:

  • Market rental units – 80-ish rent supplements available for those currently living in supportive housing who are ready to move into the private market, freeing up their units for people who need supports as they move indoors
  • Motel rooms – Capital City Centre will be repaired from the fire as of mid-January with approximately 30 spaces available
  • The Save on Foods Memorial Arena – the Province is in negotiations with GSL properties (which operates the arena) as well as with a potential shelter operator to open 48 shelter spaces
  • 30 Temporary Tiny Homes – this is a community effort; you can learn more and also donate here
  • An opportunity that will house about 30 youth
  • Other temporary indoor sheltering locations being explored to make up the rest

That’s a potential total of 218 spaces. Few of these are secured at this time. It’s going to take an enormous effort in the next 90 days to create them.

It’s also going to mean that in terms of consultation with the community we’ll be on the “inform” end of the International Association for Public Participation spectrum. This means we’ll be sharing information with the public as sheltering opportunities become available rather than consulting in advance. I know this is difficult for some people to hear. But for the past 10 months we’ve received thousands of emails asking us to get people out of parks; there is clearly a community consensus that living inside is better for everyone than having people living in parks.

Your questions, concerns and suggestions
I wish that you could all see my email inbox! There’s such a mix of messages in it. Some of you write on a regular basis with photos of people’s shelters asking bylaw to attend and enforce. Bylaw staff are doing their best to attend as many parks as possible on a regular basis. One person even sent photos of someone nodding off at a table at Tim Horton’s, coffee cup in hand, and asked me why that person wasn’t removed. I know how I would feel having my picture snapped by strangers on a regular basis.

Many people have also made suggestions about indoor sheltering locations – Ogden Point, Crystal Pool, the Armouries, the Old Canadian Tire on Douglas Street, Oak Bay Lodge. All of these have been explored and deemed unsuitable or unavailable for various reasons.

There are those of you who express a great deal of compassion for people who are struggling and also outline your own challenges with increased break ins and need for more policing. I will support the police budget this year as I have every year, and agree the police need additional resources; our officers are doing their very best in really difficult circumstances. I’m also very supportive of an alternative response that’s being co-created by the City and an alliance with the community through the City’s Community Wellness Task Force along with Island Health and VicPD, where a civilian-led team will respond for mental health-related calls so police don’t need to attend.

Some of you sent a link to a documentary about homelessness in Seattle requesting that I watch it. I watched parts of it. My feeling is that like so much of what’s online these days, it was provocative, polarizing and seemed to sow divisions – more “us and them” – rather than bringing people together and exploring the complexity of homelessness, drug addiction, crime, and inequality in the context of a global health pandemic.

For those of you who sent the documentary to me, worried about Victoria’s soul and the state of the city, please take the time to read this recent Monocole article where in November 2020, Victoria was named one of the top five small cities in the world to live. And, of course no city is ever perfect and we’re all working hard to address the challenges facing us.

Others of you in Fairfield are working to support people living Meegan/Beacon Hill Park and want the City to do more and act more quickly to assist in getting the Community Care Tent up and running. Staff have been working with the community on this since Council approved the grant for the care tent. Hopefully something will be up and running soon. I thank those of you who are part of the Fairfield Gonzales Community Association Support Group for the Unhoused for your hard work and your kindness.

Some of you have asked why we don’t move everyone in Meegan/Beacon Hill Park to the gravel area in the southwest corner. As I’ve noted in previous posts, the Beacon Hill Trust – which the City is currently being taken to court over by the Friends of Beacon Hill Park who want to stop all camping in the park – prevents organized activities in the park. The City organizing a campsite in the park does not fit with the terms of the Trust.

Some of you have pointed to the few people with Alberta licence plates staying in Meegan/Beacon Hill Park and asked what we will do about these “Snowbird Campers”. While we can’t inhibit people’s charter right to freedom of movement, BC Housing is prioritizing people for housing who are most vulnerable and who have been homeless for a significant time. This criteria will tend to focus on people who are from here and who are known to BC Housing and service providers.

Finally, a number of you have sent this link to Conestoga Huts and suggested that we pursue this solution.

Conestoga Hut village in Walla Walla Washington.

The website that some of you sent says that, “Conestoga Huts are not designed to keep people as warm as one would experience in a conventional style dwelling, though they are warmer and more substantial than sleeping in a recreational tent or unprotected in the elements.”

The City, Province and BC Housing need to stay laser focused for the next 90 and beyond to create indoor sheltering solutions that will lead to safe, secure, affordable housing with supports, as needed. We can’t put our energy into creating or siting these huts at this time. However, as noted above, there may be opportunities for the faith community and others in the community to create these low-cost interim solutions on private property. If you’re interested in helping please email me mayor@victoria.ca with “Conestoga Huts” in the subject line and I will connect you with a group that is forming to work on this.

Christmas Oranges and Other Acts of Generosity
As those of you who receive my emails on a regular basis know, I go for long runs on Sunday mornings. It helps me to think, clear my head, and see the city. The Sunday before Christmas on my run through Beacon Hill Park, I saw a Fairfield couple walking through the park with a box of Christmas oranges. They were calling to people in tents, who emerged, wary. And as they did, the couple tossed Christmas oranges their way with smiles and kind words.

I slowed as I noticed this, tears in my eyes as I thanked the couple. After everything. Here were these two lovely people out for their regular Sunday morning stroll, extending such a simple kindness to their unhoused neighbours.

And this isn’t all. When the flood hit in Central Park, the North Park Neighbourhood Association and dozens of North Park residents stepped up to help. They spent hundreds of hours over their holidays building platforms for tents, procuring tents, sleeping bags and other necessities. One nearby resident even set up a laundry sign-up sheet for people in the RAP parking lot with slots every two hours and planned to spend her holiday doing people’s laundry.

While some people may be worried about Victoria’s “soul” or the direction the city is going, I’m not. And it’s not because I have my head in the sand – my eyes are wide open to all the challenges that we’re facing. But what I know for sure is that Victoria has the grace, determination and the open-hearted approach that a community needs to tackle these challenges head on.

Here’s to the hope and hard work that 2021 will require of us all.

With gratitude,

Lisa / Mayor Helps

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