This past weekend the local Islamic Relief Canada team was able to provide essential winter supplies, hygiene products and PPE to the vulnerable community right here in Victoria. They are working with local organizations that serve the homeless community, refugees and newcomers, Indigenous communities and women’s shelters. 

Hello everyone,

Thanks for taking the time to write to me this past week. Because we’re still receiving a high volume of emails about sheltering in parks, and so that you all get an answer from me in a timely way, I’m writing back to all of you together. I’ve been doing this every Sunday since August. If you’d like to receive an email to keep up to date as we work with the Province to offer 24/7 indoor sheltering and housing opportunities over the next 73 days, you can sign up here.

I use headings in the email, so that you can just skip to the part you’re interested in. I’ll begin with a housing and sheltering update, then talk about the Community Care Tent and Transitional Tiny Home Community, which many of you have written about this week. Then I’ll share a few of my own musings and some inspiration from Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen on how we might understand suffering – our own and that of others – as a way to connect and heal.

This will be a shorter email than usual (I hear some of you breathing a sigh of relief!) because I need to spend most of the weekend reviewing the feedback we received from Victorians on the City’s 2021 budget. We begin decision making on the budget Monday morning.

73 Days – Sheltering and Housing Update
This week I felt more optimistic than ever about our work with the Province to offer everyone currently sheltering in parks a 24/7 indoor sheltering opportunity and ending 24/7 camping in parks as of March 31st. That’s 73 days from today.

My optimism comes from these media stories featuring our smart and passionate Housing Minister David Eby. He believes it’s possible to meet the March 31st goal. He says municipalities around the region also need to be part of the solution. And he notes that he’s prepared to use the Province’s land use paramountcy powers if necessary. Please take the time to watch and read. There’s a lot of detail about number of units needed, etc.

On Friday at the weekly Community Wellness Alliance Decampment Working Group meeting, I found still more cause for optimism. The December numbers show that 81 people moved through the housing continuum, including 42 people who were chronically homeless moving inside. The others who moved, moved from supportive housing into market units, or treatment, or new CRD housing, making room for the 42 to move in from outside.

This “positive flow” process that we’ve been working to set up since August seems to be working. The on-the-ground folks in Victoria from BC Housing assured me on Friday that all the processes are in place to continue this positive flow over the next 73 days to help make room for people to move inside from parks by the end of March.

Community Care Tent and Transitional Tiny Home Community
This week many of you wrote supporting the Community Care Tent and the Transitional Tiny Home Community. You asked us to move quickly noting the suffering of people living outside. We also received many emails with concerns about the proposed Community Care Tent being installed on Avalon Street at Douglas. Council also had concerns about that location. At our meeting Thursday, in a 8-1 vote, we approved a grant of $6500 to the Red Cedar Cafe to run the tent, and directed staff to find a different location.

As I explained in my blog post last week, neither the City nor any organization can provide services in the park. Please head here to read more. The locations that staff will choose from are a provincially owned piece of land just north of Southgate Street, or a portion of the curbside along Cook Street between the parks yard and Dallas Rd. The most expedient location is the Cook Street one – because it is owned by the City – and this is likely where the care tent will go.

There has been no consultation. A cold snap is coming next week. And we’ve already had extraordinary rain fall this winter. Some volunteers with the Fairfield Gonzales Community Association Support Group for the Unhoused are supportive of the idea and have been working to help. But the Association itself has not taken a position. Councillor Andrew held an informal “town hall” last week at which a number of community members attended and shared their thoughts.

It is imperative that the Community Care Tent get up and running as soon as possible. The tent will be there until March 31st. There will be COVID-19 safety protocols in place, hours of operation and operating guidelines. It is called a Community Care Tent because volunteers in the community are coming together to help their unhoused neighbours. They need a location for donations and supplies to be dropped and for people to come and warm up.

This week Council, by unanimous vote, took the next step towards the creation of a Transitional Tiny Home Community proposed for 940 Caledonia Street. Aryze Developments, working with the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, has crowd sourced $300,000 of the $500,000 needed to build 30 tiny homes. Council’s motion on Thursday gave permission for Aryze to apply for a Temporary Use Permit for 30 homes from March 31 2021 to September 30 2022.

Once city staff receive the application they will bring it to Council. Once Council has reviewed it we will invite the public to comment on it at a regular Thursday evening Council meeting before making a final decision. You can read the full Council report here. I feel proud of Council for taking this next step unanimously, even though there are lots of questions that still need answers over the next 73 days. And I feel so inspired that the community is pitching in to donate and build homes for their neighbours.

Shared Suffering As Connection
One of my new year’s resolutions is to make my work as mayor part of my spiritual practice. I’m reading a wonderful book called, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal by Rachel Naomi Remen, a medical doctor who works with cancer patients. I’m currently in a section of the book called, “Opening the Heart,” where she talks about shared suffering as a way to feel connected with each other.

On Saturday evenings as I read through all your emails to prepare this Sunday email, I feel deeply the separation of neighbours from each other, housed and unhoused. I’ve been asking myself why some people fear/dislike/express prejudice against people who are living without homes in our community. I think the root of it – subconsciously – is that to see our fellow humans so exposed, vulnerable, precarious, is really painful. And, also some of the actions resulting from this precarity impact some of you who live near parks where people are sheltering. So we build walls between us and them and close our hearts.

For those of you who are living without homes in city parks, this cutting off and disconnection is doubly painful. You are exposed, vulnerable, precarious. And then there is this additional feeling and experience of separation between you and many of your housed neighbours.

Rachel Naomi Remen offers us a path forward, an opportunity to heal:

“More and more, we seem to have become numb to the suffering of others and ashamed of our own suffering. Yet suffering is one the the universal conditions of being alive. We all suffer. We have become terribly vulnerable, not because we suffer, but because we have separated ourselves from each other …

“Perhaps the healing of the world rests on just this sort of shift in our way of seeing, a coming to know that in our suffering and our joy we are connected to one another with unbreakable and compelling human bonds. In that knowing, all of us become less vulnerable and alone.”

The root of the issue facing our community right now isn’t only that people are living in parks. It is a sense of disconnection, vulnerability, alone-ness. This makes sense given that we are 313 days into a global health pandemic where we’ve all been told to isolate as much as possible. My hope for all of us is that we can shift our way of seeing even just a little bit, and recognize that we are all – fundamentally – connected.

With gratitude,

Lisa / Mayor Helps

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