Thanks for taking the time to write to me this past week. In order to answer all your emails in a timely way and to ensure that everyone has as much information as possible, I write back to everyone all at once every Sunday. I’ll address your specific concerns as best I can and you’ll also learn about some of the concerns that others have and what we’re doing in response.
Many of you have asked some really good questions that I’ve answered in previous Sunday emails; these emails are all on my blog. What would be great if I don’t answer your exact question here – though I’ll do my best! – is to head to my blog and search for topic you’re looking for. You can do this by using the Command and “F” key at the same time and then searching for the word or words you’re looking for information on.
I’ve been writing every Sunday since August on the topic of housing, sheltering, parks and solutions so there’s lots of information available. If you’d like to receive weekly emails from me to keep you to date, you can also sign up here.
This email is organized by heading so you can just skip to the section where I address what you’ve written to me about if you don’t want to read the whole thing. I’ll start with the next 80 days and the plan to end parks sheltering by March 31 2021. Then I’ll talk about the Community Care Tent in Meegan/Beacon Hill Park. Next I’ll respond to concerns about parks sheltering more generally. Then I’ll share and respond to some of the suggestions you’ve made. Finally, as always at the end, I’ll share what I hope is a dose of humanity and inspiration. That’s always my favourite part so I hope you can skip to that if you can’t read the whole thing.
80 Days – There is A Plan
Council has set a goal of working with the Province to offer everyone currently living in City parks a 24/7 indoor sheltering opportunity by March 31st. That is 80 days from today. When that happens, we will change the parks bylaw back to allow camping only from 7pm-7am as per a 2009 Supreme Court decision that secured the right to overnight shelter for people without homes.
On Friday morning, BC’s terrific new Housing Minister David Eby was interviewed by Gregor Craigie on CBC. He expressed his support for Victoria Council’s goal, said he thought March 31st was doable, and noted that we are all working together to make this happen. Please take the time to listen to his interview here.
We are still in a global health pandemic and in a provincially declared State of Emergency. We need to move quickly over the next 80 days to meet the goal, because people have been living outside for far too long already. Because we are in a State of Emergency and need to move quickly, some of the solutions will likely not have much public consultation, though we will do our best to keep the public informed.
As Minister Eby noted on CBC, there are currently approximately 191 structures in city parks. Some of them have more than one person living in them. This means that we need to create indoor sheltering solutions – and not just a mat on a floor – for over 200 people in the next 80 days. These spaces will come through rent supplements, tiny homes, new 24/7 indoor transitional sheltering opportunities, motel rooms, and a new Regional Housing First building that is opening in Langford in March.
There have been a couple of emails from nearby residents of the proposed Transitional Tiny Home Community concerned about this project. You can read the full report to Council here. I can assure residents that a wide search of publicly and privately owned properties around the city and the region was undertaken, including the land the City owns at 930 Pandora. That property will go through planning and then demolition as soon as possible and before September 2022 and is not a suitable location for the Transitional Tiny Home Community. The Transitional Tiny Home Community will be run by an experienced operator. There will be a formal opportunity for public comment at a Council meeting about the Transitional Tiny Home Community before Council would authorize a Temporary Use Permit.
To those of you who are still living outside in the middle of a global health pandemic, I hear your stories and I see your needs. We’re going to continue to do the very best we can to support the Province to create indoor spaces for you, spaces that are the transition to homes and the supports you’ve said you need. BC Housing will be prioritizing people who have filled out a BC Housing application. If you haven’t filled one out, flag down an outreach worker and ask for help. If you have someone to help you fill out a form they can find it here.
Community Care Tent
This past week we’ve received a flood of emails from people who live on or near Avalon Street concerned about the proposal to install a Community Care Tent at Avalon and Douglas Street for the next 80 days. Thanks for writing and sharing your concerns. Some of you have asked why we can’t set up the tent on the gravel field in Meegan/Beacon Hill Park.
The Beacon Hill Trust dating back to 1882 governs the use of the park. People who are living without homes are also members of the public and can use Meegan/Beacon Hill Park and other city parks for sheltering as per the 2009 Supreme Court decision. However, the City – or anyone else – can’t organize encampments or services in the park as this would be seen to violate the Trust. Believe me, I’m as exasperated by this as all of you are, as the gravel field does seem like the easiest solution. But as our City Solicitor said to me when I came to him with my exasperation, we are the government; we cannot knowingly violate a law.
I’m glad I got your emails because when we discuss this at Council next week I can ask the questions that you’ve asked about access, parking, other routes for residents, safety of people crossing Douglas, hours of operation, COVID safety plans for the tent and so on. I think all of these questions are really good and need answers.
What I find harder to take are the emails telling me how ashamed of myself I should be for considering putting the Community Care Tent on Avalon Street. We are in a State of Emergency. There are seniors like Al (see his video below), living outside in Meegan/Beacon Hill Park. Yes there has been inadequate consultation. No Avalon Street is not the perfect location for a Community Care Tent. But surely we can all find it somewhere inside ourselves to hold it together for the next 80 days in a really rainy Victoria winter to accept a space where people can come in out of the rain to dry off and warm up.
Parks Sheltering and Other Concerns
We have received a number of emails this week about Meegan/Beacon Hill Park and bylaw non-compliance. Our hardworking bylaw staff have been focused over the past weeks on Central Park, first to work to achieve compliance with the new bylaws that are meant to limit the number of people camping in each park, and more recently helping people to relocate in the wake of the flood.
Bylaw staff will be attending in all city parks this week and beyond working with people to come into compliance with the bylaws. They will also be helping to ensure that people have housing applications filled out so BC Housing can understand their needs and what kind of indoor shelter would be suitable.
Central Park has been closed entirely for remediation. Staff have been in contact with the North Park Neighbourhood Association to get their input into the remediation plans. Council will need to consider whether Central Park is an appropriate location for sheltering at all given the flooding potential; we will need to make this decision very soon given the number of rainy winter months still ahead.
Some of you have expressed concern that as part of Central Park remediation the City might somehow sneak back in plans for Crystal Pool at that location. I can say firmly that the redevelopment of Crystal Pool has been put on a back burner at this point and it is not in Council’s 2021 work plan. The City took advantage of the closure of recreation centres earlier in the pandemic and has done some much-needed repairs to the existing facility. It will re-open soon.
I’ve also heard concerns from people who use the tennis court at Oaklands Park and the playground in Vic West park that there are people camped too close to these facilities. Bylaw staff are in regular contact with people sheltering working to find a way forward and achieve compliance.
What your emails reveal – and this has been a theme throughout the pandemic – is that parks are for recreation not for living in. People need housing so that they don’t have to live in parks, so that parks can be used for recreation. It sounds so logical and simple really, but I can assure you from work on this issue daily, that it’s not an easy one to resolve.
I’ve received a few emails this week from people who earn a good living, work hard, and still can’t afford to rent or buy a home in Victoria. This is a real concern for myself and Council. That’s why in addition to all the work we’ve been doing to help end parks sheltering, our staff have been working hard to implement the Victoria Housing Strategy .
Recently we have undertaken the following initiatives:
- A Renter Engagement Toolkit [PDF] to help increase the participation and voice of renters/tenants in City engagement opportunities
- Short-term rental regulations geared to increase access to long-term rental housing
- Tenant Assistance Policy to provide better support for renters who are required to move when their building is rezoned for redevelopment
- Renter’s Advisory Committee to provide advice and recommendations to Council on rental housing and tenant related matters
- Inclusionary Housing and Community Amenity Policy to encourage affordable housing in new multi-unit strata development
Something I’m really excited about for 2021 is the Missing Middle housing work we are doing. A few of you inquired about that this week. Missing Middle housing is the gap between apartments or condos and single family homes. As we all know, Victoria is growing. Housing in our community must meet the needs of everyone including young people who want to work here, families who want to stay, and grandparents who want to be close to grandkids. We know from census data that Victoria continues to lose people as they enter their 30s, likely as a result of the lack of housing options that fit their incomes and ability to grow as a family.
Taking bold steps towards Missing Middle Housing means we’ll have more townhouses, row houses, houseplexes and other forms of what are called “ground oriented units” – homes where people can access the street directly from their front door – in our single family neighbourhoods. A Times Colonist article last week, Greater Victoria’s real estate inventory hits 25-year low, pushing prices up lays out the dire situation really clearly. If we want to make Victoria a place where families can afford to live and to grow, we need to support and incentivize the building of many more family homes in the tiny 20 square kilometre piece of land that the city occupies.
Many this week have suggested organized camping in Meegan/Beacon Hill Park on the gravel lot, or opening the Cameron Bandshell. As noted above, the Beacon Hill Trust prohibits any form of organized activity in the park. This has been challenged and upheld in court. The City is currently back in court with the Friends of Beacon Hill Park who are suing the City to prevent camping of any sort in the park. As a Trustee, the City needs to adhere to the terms of the Trust.
Someone sent me this creative idea, which I’ll share here. We are undertaking something similar as part of the Victoria Housing Strategy and also part of the Victoria Climate Leadership Plan:
“I would also like to suggest some thinking outside of the box – I am involved with a neighbourhood climate action group. What if the City of Victoria’s Green Business department (https://www.victoria.ca/EN/main/business/sustainability-programs-for-businesses.html) liaised with big landlords and created custom energy saving plans for them and their buildings that would result in savings that could be used to allow them to offer reduced cost suites in their buildings so that people’s rental supplements/social assistance would be sufficient to afford them.”
Someone else wrote:
“I would like to see the city and province ask the federal government for a tract of land in Saanich and on that land the construction of 250 small one room cottages of simple design sloped roof, inside a small fridge freezer, a 2 burner induction range, a single sink on one wall a standing shower, a small vanity sink and toilet in a bathroom walled off in a corner, the heating/cooling should be done by means of geothermal heat exchange, all units can be heated/cooled by the same system running parallel say 4 separate systems only necessitating heat pumps smaller units in parallel for maximum efficiency, on demand water heaters, LED lighting, they should be Hardie plank exterior for esthetic appeal and maximum durability the colors switched up a bit as well as some units having transom windows others without windows should also be varied in type as well as exterior lighting fixtures will vary in design simple concrete pad, unit construction would be a cookie cutter design so production would be assembly line of sorts ,insulation should be of a closed cell type to simplify construction further as sewer, gas for on demand, water and heating is centralized cost should be low on a per unit basis.
“Housing of this type should be viewed not so much as permanent but a stepping stone toward integration into mainstream society and private housing. These types of homes should be allocated and prioritized toward those who are already within our community and where a cost/benefit structure resides.
“At the end of the day the only real possibility of closing the gap between homelessness and or poverty is thru reintegration not alienation.”
The model laid out here in terms of temporary transitional housing is exactly what is proposed for the Transitional Tiny Home Community that I shared above. It will be small scale – 30 people not 250 – and will be a place where people can come inside and get settled and have the supports they need to find their way towards more permanent housing, and, as the citizen who wrote so eloquently put it, “reintegration not alienation.”
Al’s Art and all the Others Out There
A resident of Fairfield who lives adjacent to Meegan/Beacon Hill Park has gotten to know her un-housed neighbours. More than that, she’s been working with them on art and creative projects. She writes,
“I’ve collaborated with the Beacon Hill Park unhoused community to create MECA: Meegan Everyday Creativity Arts project. The individuals in Meegan need an opportunity to express and create. They are so excited for this project, and speak enthusiastically about it … Creative activity is a big part of how they process their big and small traumas.”
Here’s a video of Al showing her his very creative art work:
To Al and all of the others out there, I am humbled by your resilience. I want you to know that we’re working hard so that you won’t have to spend another winter in a tent, so that you’ll have the same safe, secure housing that myself and so many of the people who write to me every week enjoy. You are part of our community.
With humility and gratitude,
Lisa / Mayor Helps
P.S. Just before I was about to hit send on this email, someone sent me an email with a link to this young man, apparently currently living in a vehicle in Victoria, singing. In light of the resident’s comment above about the creativity of people living outside, I thought I’d include it here. Beautiful.