Hello Everyone,

I wanted to started this email / post with the op-ed I wrote for the Times Colonist on Thursday, which marked one year of the global health pandemic. The crafty headline writers at the paper gave it the title, “Can-do spirit of past year will help position city for the future.” I’m sharing it with all of you as a tribute to what we’ve all been through. If you wrote specifically about Clover Point or about homelessness and concerns with respect to parks sheltering and the plans to move people indoors, feel free to skip the op-ed and go right down to those headings. If you’d like to receive weekly updates, you can sign up here (top right hand side).

Can Do Spirit of Past Year
Today marks one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global health pandemic. The flag at City Hall is flying at half-mast to recognize and mourn the lives that have been lost.

Today is also a moment for reflection: how we came together to fight COVID-19; how our lives have changed; what we’ve lost and what we’ve gained. It’s also a time to look forward, towards recovery and to what kind of economy we build for the future.

Each of us probably remembers where we were the moment life changed. I was at the Victoria airport on March 11, 2020. I’d checked in and was waiting for my flight to Ottawa for a conference and minister meetings. My phone rang and it was staff at City Hall suggesting I reconsider travelling.

I remember telling the woman at the Air Canada boarding gate that I wouldn’t be on the flight. “You and almost everyone else,” she said. Recognizing me as the mayor she said, “Good luck to you … good luck to all of us,” with a real sense of foreboding.

It’s much more than luck that has carried us through the last year. It’s the skill, courage and sheer fortitude of those working in our health care system. They risked their lives to keep us all safe. They showed up for shifts in the early days of the pandemic when so much about the disease was unknown. They tended to the sick and the dying. They are COVID-19 heroes.

So too the bus drivers who kept transit running so people could get to work. The grocery store cashiers and clerks. The teachers who got kids back to school in uncertain conditions. The City workers who kept providing the services we depend on like garbage pick-up, street cleaning, running water.

When the world shut down and we were told to stay at home, to work from home, those who couldn’t and didn’t – for the benefit of us all – deserve our deepest thanks.

We did thank them early on, banging pots at 7 p.m. On front porches and in backyards throughout the region, every evening the loud clanging clatter of thanks. That simple act brought us together, lifted our spirits. But then it stopped, our spirits fizzled, and COVID-19 fatigue began to set in.

Our bubbles started to feel small. We couldn’t go for dinner with a friend, take a trip, enjoy a symphony concert or a play. Sing in our choirs. Attend church in person. Many have lost jobs or had their work hours cut. The pandemic widened existing cracks in the social safety net, leaving our most vulnerable neighbours in desperate need of housing and support. Our kids’ mental health worries us, and maybe our own mental health does too. Our small businesses are struggling.

There have been some silver linings. The region’s generosity was evident in the early months of the pandemic when the Times Colonist, Victoria Foundation and Jawl Family Foundation launched the Rapid Relief Fund with the aim of raising $1 million. In less than two months, contributions small and large totalled $6 million, all of which went directly to non-profits providing services to people hit hard by the pandemic.

The Build Back Victoria initiative last summer showed how quickly Council can act and how agile City Hall can be. Within weeks, dozens of patios and retail “flex spaces” sprung up across the city to create more space for businesses to serve customers. I’ve had a number of business owners tell me that Build Back Victoria is the reason they’re still open. And I’ve had residents say to me that they’ve never spent as much time or money on Government Street as they did last summer.

Vaccines roll out next week, restrictions will be slowly eased, and life will start to feel normal again. As it does, we’ve got a lot of economic recovery work to do. Major sectors like tourism have been hard hit and need support. Emerging economic opportunities like the Centre for Ocean Applied Sustainable Technologies (COAST) need to be nurtured as key recovery projects.

In all sectors, women, youth, Indigenous people, people of colour, and low-wage service workers have been disproportionately impacted. According to the South Island Prosperity Partnership’s Reboot recovery vision, “we must collectively take bold steps to nurture a more inclusive and diversified economy.”

This has been one of the most difficult years in Victoria’s history. And we’ve made it through. In the coming months, let’s continue to use what we’ve learned during the pandemic – agility, deep collaboration, a can-do spirit – to position our city and our region for the future.  

Clover Point Decision Recap
Please see blog posts from February 28th and March 7th (head to Clover Point section in each post) for a more comprehensive explanation of the approach we’ve taken to Clover Point. In response to further emails this week, I’m sharing some information on the precise decision for those who may not have these details, and a link to the February 25th staff report. At the February 25 Committee of the Whole meeting, staff presented three options for the interim design of Clover Point Park. Council approved the below motion and we ratified it at our daytime Council meeting on March 4.

Interim Design Options for Parking and Pedestrian Space in Clover Point Park
That Council direct staff to proceed with Option 2 for Clover Point Park:

  1. Complete modifications to increase the pedestrian priority space in Clover Point Park, as illustrated in Attachment B, with an allocation of up to $275,000 in the 2021 Financial Plan, to be funded from the Buildings and Infrastructure Reserve.
  2. That the painting budget be restricted to delineating pedestrian trails and bike trails versus passive space.
  3. That a location be found downtown for the “follow the pod” public art feature.
  4. That staff be in consultation with immigrants and immigrant associations, ethno-cultural groups and the seniors’ advisory committee, youth council and City of Victoria youth council, Fairfield Gonzales Community Association, Accessibility Advisory Committee, Active Transportation Advisory Committee, and that their views are considered.
  5. That food trucks must use sustainable practices and must submit these practices to staff.
  6. That the budget for furniture be reduced to $50,000.

You can find the staff report and Council’s discussion from February 25 here.

Update on Parks Sheltering and Moves Indoors (and what the City spends money on)
Some of you who have written this week have asked us to ends parks sheltering immediately. Others have asked us to extend it indefinitely, or to the end of the pandemic. My hope is that Council sticks to our commitment, which is the middle ground between these two positions.

In November, Council passed a motion indicating that we would change the parks bylaw to end 24/7 sheltering once everyone currently living in parks has been offered an indoor sheltering space as a pathway to permanent housing. We had set a goal of March 31st. The Province and BC Housing accepted this goal and everyone has been working towards it. Parks are not homes. And Beacon Hill Park is not a campground. Parks have been used as emergency shelters in an emergency situation. A huge shout out to our parks staff who are working so hard to maintain Beacon Hill Park even in these very difficult circumstances. Please thank them when you see them.

As of this week the Province announced that it has secured a sufficient number of indoor spaces to support moving people inside. Because two of the sites secured this month require significant additional retrofitting to prepare them for use as emergency shelters, the process will continue until the end of April 2021, rather than the end of March as originally planned. Announcement of the final site list will be done in partnership with the city in the coming weeks once all of the agreements between BC Housing and the property owners have closed.

Following through on its commitment, at our evening Council meeting last Thursday, Council gave three readings to a parks bylaw amendment that would see the end of 24/7 sheltering as of May 1st. Council will consider adoption of the bylaw this Thursday.

All the indoor sheltering locations will be fully operational, with non-profit service providers identified, by April 30, 2021. At these locations, staff will be on site 24/7 to provide wraparound supports, including meal programs, life skills training, and health and wellness support services.

Fifty-seven people have moved inside since the beginning of March and moves will continue this coming week. People have moved inside from Ellis Street in Rock Bay, Cecelia Ravine Park, and 940 Caledonia. This site will be closed as of March 19th to make way for a Tiny Home development, subject to the outcome of an opportunity for the public to comment on the project at Council Thursday evening.

We expect a minimum of 52 moves this coming week into Capital City Centre and other sites. BC Housing is prioritizing people over 50 (down from 55), those at risk of COVID-19, those who are long-time homeless, and Indigenous people.

Here are four questions that one person has asked; they reflect questions from others of you as well. I have answered them a number of times – in some form – since August when I began weekly updates. Please read previous posts if you require further or more detailed information. You can find them here.

1. Why did you allow 24/7 camping in parks in the first place, given that this was not a requirement of the BC Ministry of Health?
A global pandemic was declared. Shelters closed. Couch-surfing ended. Bubbles got small. And people had nowhere to go. The City allowed people who had nowhere to go when everyone was told to stay at home to shelter in place. Dr. Henry advised on June 8th 2020 in a memo to all mayors in British Columbia that encampments should not be cleared unless there were safe indoor spaces for people to go. At this time, she has not rescinded her advice or sent any further memos. That’s why we’ve been working hard with the Province to secure safe indoor spaces so that we can move people inside and end encampments.

2. Why didn’t you admit the mistake and reverse course when it quickly became clear that 24/7 camping was a disastrous decision?
While there have been many difficulties with this situation for everyone involved, I don’t believe it is a mistake. I think there would have been a greater risk of the spread of COVID-19 had 200 to 400 people had to take down their tents every morning and move throughout the city. Plus, there was literally nowhere for people to go. Even Our Place and the library closed, two places where people without homes can spend time during the day.

3. Why are you intending to allow 7pm – 7am camping in parks after all campers have been offered accommodation? The BC Supreme Court decision does not require cities to allow camping in urban parks except when there is no sheltering alternative.
I agree. The goal is to have no camping in city parks and to have adequate indoor sheltering space for everyone who needs it. The goal is to achieve what is called “functional zero” when it comes to homelessness. What this means is that if someone becomes homeless, there is room in the emergency shelter and housing system to catch them immediately and to meet their needs, however complex, before their situation becomes chronic.

The 2009 BC Supreme Court decision ruled that people who have no homes have the right to erect shelters overnight. The decision uses words like “adequate sheltering alternative” or something like this. So it’s not just as simple as the number of shelter beds that may be available on a given night. If for example, someone is in recovery from drug or alcohol use and the only shelter beds available are ones where drug use and/or alcohol consumption is permitted, that may not be considered an “adequate” shelter for that person. The Supreme Court decision is not a simple numbers game.

4. Why do you refuse to acknowledge the extent to which the homeless population in Victoria consists of people from outside the region? We will never get ahead of the problem of housing so many people when there is a large and steady influx from other provinces.
What the bi-annual Point In Time Count shows is that the majority of people who are homeless in Victoria are from British Columbia. And, Council unanimously voted last August to ask the Coordinated Assessment and Access (CAA) table to prioritize people for housing who have lived in the CRD for at least a year. Council does not make decisions about who gets housed. You can read the August 6th recommendation to Council from myself and Councillors Thornton-Joe, Loveday and Alto here. (See item J3.)

There seems to be a narrative emerging in some of the emails we’ve received, and probably also on social media, that instead of “wasting” money on bike lanes and Clover Point, the City should be spending money instead on housing, mental health and addictions. At then there is also a narrative that Council focuses on issues that are beyond our scope and that we should stay focused on what is properly within a municipal mandate.

Health care and housing are clearly – and constitutionally – the responsibilities of the federal and provincial governments. The City can and does partner with both levels of government; we sometimes provide land for housing. And we have a housing reserve fund in which we deposit $650,000 per year to help fund the creation of non-market housing by non-profit housing providers. But we are not responsible for housing, health care, mental health and addictions supports and we don’t have the revenue raising capacity or tools to fund these important services.

But cities are supposed to spend money on parks and improvements to transportation infrastructure. And, contrary to what seems like popular belief, most of the bike infrastructure in Victoria is not funded through property taxes. It is funded through gas tax funding which is remitted to local governments from the federal government each year and can only be used to fund sustainable projects. The City of Victoria is not alone in developing a high-quality bike network. This article, “Europe doubles down on cycling in post-COVID recovery plans,” celebrates the explosion of cycling infrastructure across Europe.

And just one more thing in this regard, because it gets raised so often: we spend millions every year paving roads and filling potholes. At the same time as we are building bike lanes and improving parks – to deliver on the City’s 20-year paving and road maintenance plan – we are increasing the paving budget up to a steady state of $7.9 million per year by 2023.

Road Paving – Major and Local Streets

Year                     Budget                                                                                                          
2018                     $2.8 million 
2019                     $2.6 million
2020                     $5.5 million
2021     $5.2 million
2022 (proposed)      $6.3 million
2023 (proposed)      $7.9 million

A Mother’s Story and Thanks
A mother sent me this email after reading my blog post last week.

“So, as the proud mother of a son who is both chronically disabled and homeless due to serious mental illness and has managed to survive on the streets of Victoria for many years: may I say that just LOOKING at the ‘Shelter Referral Card’ does some kind of deep healing to my heart.  I don’t even know that my son is ever going to receive one of these, but just knowing that people like him are is deeply, deeply encouraging to me.

I know that you and certain other concerned councillors are receiving a LOT of flack for these efforts from people who have no personal interest in really trying to understand the complex issue of homelessness.    Please know that there are MANY more mothers and brothers and sisters and grandparents out there who are BLESSING YOUR SOUL for this work, every single day.”

She shared this article with me from The Capital Daily, where parents of homeless Victorians speak. To all the parents, grandparents and siblings of people who are homeless out there in our city or across the province or country, we know it’s not their fault, and it’s not your fault either. The health and housing system fails those with the most chronic needs, over and over again. This is why we are working together with the Province and the federal government to make sure that the housing and health care systems work better together, and work for everyone.

With gratitude,

Lisa / Mayor Helps

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