The Community First! Village in Austin Texas that provides housing with supports to people coming out of homelessness. More below. Thanks to the resident who sent this. Photo credit: Leonid Furmansky.

Hello Everyone,

Thanks for taking the time to write to me this week to share your thoughts, questions and concerns with respect to outdoor sheltering in parks and related issues. I’ve read all of your emails and I’m responding to them all together so that you all get an answer in a timely way. Some of you have requested a personal response. This is my personal response. It’s heartfelt, hopefully informative and assures you that I’ve read your emails and am hearing your concerns. If you have a specific bylaw related concern, please report it here.

This email will be short compared to my past Sunday emails as I’ve received fewer emails this week and a more narrow series of concerns. For those who want more general information about sheltering in parks and what the City and Province are doing to address it, please read last week’s email here. There is an outline of the steps we are taking with the Province and the plans that we are putting in place. If you’d like to receive regular updates you can sign up here (top right hand corner).

But in the meantime, some of you have other questions. With respect to enforcing the current sheltering bylaws, our bylaw staff are in parks daily working with the people who are living there to achieve compliance and to give people as much information as they can about what is expected. Some of you have expressed a lot of frustration about bylaws not being followed. There are 200 people living in nine parks. The City’s bylaw officers are doing their very best balancing the needs of people forced to live outside in the middle of a global health pandemic with bylaw enforcement and keeping parks available for everyone to use. Their work is very difficult.

A couple of people have written about the increasing number of people at Irving Park and that some people have begun to camp too close to the playground, where the kids from the nearby daycare usually play. We’ve made bylaw staff aware of this and they will (or have already) attend Irving Park to help ensure that the space is available for both the people who are living outside and for the kids to play. Thanks to the person who wrote and pointed out that this has been working pretty well until recently.

Some of you have written this week thanking me for work that myself and Council have been doing to address the current situation of outdoor sheltering and recognizing what a difficult situation this is for everyone. Others have written saying that we are doing a terrible job, or worse.

Some of you have said in response to my email last Sunday that you don’t care what is happening across the country or the province, you only care about what is happening in Victoria. The reason I shared all the information from elsewhere is to show that Victoria is not any different from other major cities across the country or the province.

In this Times Colonist piece, “Complex-care housing could help solve the B.C. dilemma,” that I co-authored with Brian Frenkel, a Vanderhoof City Councillor and the president of UBCM as well as Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran with whom I chair the BC Urban Mayors’ Caucus, we lay out very clearly that, “A deadly drug supply and the effects of untreated addictions and severe mental illness are visible daily on our streets, doorways, in our parks, and — in more remote and rural areas — in forests and secluded places where people are a long way from help.”

It’s not just Toronto, Montreal, London, and other places I cited last week. There are people sleeping outside 24/7 in View Royal, Saanich, Sooke, Sidney. It’s just that they are more hidden than in Victoria which is a tiny municipality with no forested areas, only city parks. These aren’t excuses or deflections as some of you have suggested, these are just facts. And they are really difficult ones for all of us to face. It should shock us that there are people living outside in the middle of a global health pandemic in a country as prosperous as Canada.

Every day myself, members of Council, city staff, BC Housing, Island Health, the provincial housing ministry, and all the amazing front line workers in the parks are working towards the March 31st goal of offering everyone currently living in parks an indoor space.

Many of you have asked this week, will we really do this by March 31st and what happens after this. For awhile I felt like I was the only one who believed that we would actually be able to offer everyone an indoor space by the end of March. But over the past few weeks, Minster Eby, BC’s Housing Minister has unequivocally and repeatedly stated that he also believes this is possible. Please take the time to read this fantastic interview with him in today’s Times Colonist. I know that his staff as well as BC Housing staff are working very hard to secure spaces for everyone. I know this is an expensive prospect. But it’s not nearly as expensive as the financial, social, health and environmental costs of people living outside. And housing is also a human right.

People who choose not to go into an indoor location will need to take down their tents every morning as per the City’s parks bylaw, and those currently sleeping in RVs or vans in Beacon Hill Park will also have to move. Beacon Hill Park is not a campground; it is an emergency sheltering location.

What we’re finding, is that contrary to myths and popular belief, most people living outside do want to move inside into safe secure housing with a door they can lock behind them. We also know that some people will want and need support and especially peer support from people who have themselves recovered from homelessness. The Greater Coalition to End Homelessness has a fantastic peer housing support program that is funded by BC Housing and will be an important element of a successful transition for people moving in.

A key principle of Housing First, which is a proven approach to housing, is that choice is really important to successful housing outcomes and good for people’s sense of dignity. If you are a woman who has experienced sexual abuse in a congregate housing setting, you may prefer a transitional tiny home or a motel room. If you are some who knows that you live better in community than isolated in a room of your own, you may choose a congregate setting like the arena or the My Place shelter.

In May, in the early days of the pandemic emergency when people were rushed off the Pandora boulevard and Topaz Park into motel rooms and the arena, there was little assessment and little ability for people to share their needs or to have much choice in their housing. Now, since Council set the March 31st goal in November, outreach workers, medical providers, and BC Housing staff have more of a sense of who is living outside and what they need for a successful transition indoors.

Everyone will fill out a housing application (if you are living outside and haven’t filled out an application you can find supportive housing applications here and affordable housing applications here) and everyone will be offered an indoor space through the Coordinated Assessment and Access process that is run by BC Housing, Island Health and the Capital Regional District.

I know this seems like a lot of detail about the process, but some of you have asked very detailed questions about how all of this will work, and I want to give comprehensive answers.

Your Suggestions
As always, I’m grateful when people take the time to send ideas and suggestions. Someone wrote:

“A few years ago I saw a clip from a Seattle news program where a small company (under 10 people) ‘adopted’ (for lack of a better word) a needy family. Problematic ‘tent cities’ fill our TV screens daily with numerous problems; children going hungry – so sad! It could be any of us!

“What if: 1 company contributed and cared for 1 individual (or family) for a year period?! the person (or family) would not know where their assistance is coming from. This ‘gift-support’ would be in addition to whatever they receive from the government and without tax penalty. Everyone needs a little additional help sometime.”

A similar idea is getting life right here in Victoria, not with companies (although I know there have been many corporate donors to the Transitional Tiny Home Community), but with individuals and churches. There a a group of people organizing to think creatively about how a person or group of people could top up a BC Housing rent supplement so that someone could afford to rent an apartment with a rent supplement plus a top up. I find it inspiring that residents are coming together to self-organize in this way.

Someone else wrote and suggested:

“My idea would be to build a large compound in the middle of somewhere far from cities and people who want to get off drugs and get clean could sign up (voluntarily, of course) and live in the compound for a minimum of 2 years. During this period they would learn a trade. They would also farm most of their food (supplies would be brought in monthly to bolster food, clothing, medicine etc), they would learn trades like sewing, mechanics, farming, woodworking, marketing. The could sell their products to allow the compound to thrive. They would also earn a daily wage which would go into a bank account in their name.

“Once the 2 years is up they could then leave and they would be assisted in obtaining employment in their trade. They would be given an apartment with the first 6 months of rent paid, and of course they would have their 2 years of wages in the bank account that they earned while in the compound. I think this would actually be a good solution to a very difficult problem. There are a few things though that would make this idea work: The compound has to be far away from any city. Too far to walk or drive. The compound must be voluntary for a minimum of 2 years. There will be a female side and a male side to avoid any situations where mingling could create a problem. Rules would need to be enforced. Trades are mandatory and part of the rehab.”

A program very similar to what is described here exists in View Royal called New Roads and run by Our Place Society. There are spaces available right now for men who are ready to voluntarily enter a 14 month to two year program to recover from an addiction. While the program doesn’t have all the elements that this thoughtful resident described, it does have many of them.

Finally, someone sent this inspiring article, Beautiful Micro-House Built in Sustainable Community For Formerly Homeless Folks. The Transitional Tiny Home Community proposed in Victoria is a version of this concept. It is not permanent housing but rather a transitional resting place until permanent housing is available. And like the article, which outlines a community effort in Austin Texas, the Transitional Tiny Home Community is an effort of the private and non-profit sectors as well as citizens and governments coming together to take a creative approach to temporary housing.

To Those Who Think I’m Doing A Terrible Job
Thank you especially for taking the time to write and share your thoughts. I hear the frustration and anger in some of your emails. Being balanced and generous in my responses to your frustration and anger, doesn’t make my emails “fluff”, what I’m trying to do is to be respectful and to connect, human to human.

The sarcasm, and sometimes mean spiritedness as you make your points, and repeated rants against the bike lanes as a tag on to everything else you think I’ve done wrong are a bit hard to take. But maybe you’re feeling really stressed by the pandemic, or going through a hard time of your own. I want you to know that I hear you. I don’t simply roll my eyes and delete your emails. Because I believe in diversity of thought and a variety of perspectives.

What I also know to be true is that to solve the tough problems facing us – homelessness, a pending economic depression and the survival of our beloved local businesses, income inequality, racism, climate change, building a city for the 21st and 22nd century – we need to really communicate with each other.

I started a really great book yesterday called, Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening and Creating New Realities by Adam Kahane. Adam worked in post apartheid South Africa, in Guatemala, Venezuela, Israel and Palestine and other places facing challenges and division. I thought about something he wrote in the introduction as I was reading some of your emails:

“Our most common way of talking is telling: asserting the truth about the way things are and must be, not allowing that there might be other truths and possibilities. And our most common way of listening is not listening: listening only to our own talking, not to others … A complex problem can only be solved peacefully if the people who are part of the problem work together creatively to understand their situation and to improve it.”

Here’s to other truths and possibilities. And to creative solutions.

With gratitude,

Lisa / Mayor Helps

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