I left work on Friday feeling rather hopeless. There are so many challenges still on the horizon: Our small businesses, already struggling, facing more restrictions. The variants of concern impacting young people. More than a year into a global health pandemic people still living outside. And this past week, another tragedy: a 15-year-old child living in Beacon Hill Park was assaulted in their tent. How can we, as a city, province and country have failed so miserably to have 15-year-olds – or anyone – living in tents? It’s a collective failing. No one is to blame, and everyone is responsible.
I’m angry at the decades-long divestment in housing by former provincial and federal governments. I’m angry that when mental health institutions were closed years back, a community solution was promised but never delivered. I’m angry that a couple of weeks ago, there were events to mark the five year anniversary of the declaration of the opioid crisis as a public health emergency. What kind of society has a five year long emergency? Our does. No one is to blame, and everyone is responsible.
The federal and provincial budgets this past week continue to address these issues. The provincial budget has $500 million for mental health supports, including youth mental health. And the federal government allocated an additional $1.5 billion for a second round of the Rapid Housing Initiative to help end chronic homelessness. Round one saw 91 new homes here in our region, in Saanich and Central Saanich. There’s so much more to be done.
But it’s not just more money that’s needed. Part of the issue is how we as a community are dealing with the three concurrent health crises facing us: the housing crisis, the COVID-19 crisis and the opioid crisis. This has come to a head in my email inbox again this week with a wide variety of perspectives, some worded very strongly.
Let’s start with the positive. Responsibility means the ability to respond. I’ve witnessed some phenomenal responses to the three concurrent health crises. In just over two months, 570 people donated over $550,000 to build homes for their neighbours. The Tiny Home Village at 940 Caledonia Street is set to open in the next couple of weeks. Thirty people will move inside due to the generosity of their neighbours and the problem-solving spirit of Aryze Developments.
In Beacon Hill Park, Stadacona Park and perhaps other parks as well, there are housed residents who are getting to know their unhoused neighbours, supporting them while living outdoors and continuing to support them as they move inside. If you take nothing else from this blog post, please read this inspiring story in The Capital Daily about the Fairfield Gonzales Support for the Unhoused.
Their work shouldn’t be remarkable. Imagine if there were a ‘real’ disaster – an earthquake or a flood – and Victoria residents were forced to set up tents in city parks. How would we respond? We’d do what all communities do in a disaster, we’d pull together and we’d help each other out. So why is this particular disaster – the housing crisis combined with the COVID-19 crisis combined with the opioid crisis – dividing us as a community rather than bringing us together with a can-do helping spirit?
In part it’s because people who live in homes near parks where people are living have had front row seats to the ongoing tragedy and vulnerability of people living outside. You are witnessing others’ trauma on a daily basis. For some it’s a reflex to turn away, to get angry, to just want it to stop. Also, to witness another’s pain and trauma can’t help but bring us face to face with our own. I know there have also been very real impacts on your lives in big and small ways, as you’ve shared these with me by email. I’m sorry.
In part it’s because of the toxic cesspool of social media where anyone can say anything about any one in any way without taking responsibility for the damage and division their words are doing. The name calling and blame game has to stop.
It’s also that we haven’t done enough to name and address stigma and discrimination against people who are poor, or living without homes, or living with substance use issues. A Vic West resident created a very disturbing flyer about the proposed transitional housing in their neighbourhood. Another Vic West resident wrote to me that they were “deeply distressed by the tone and language” contained in the flyer and that “it is a gut-wrenching demonstration of the ‘othering’ and prejudice that people who are homeless face every single day of their lives.”
In part its because those living outside are so visible and vulnerable. You have nowhere else to go. Being this visible must be very difficult. At end of a long hard day, I can come home and close my door. For those of you living outside, this past year has probably felt like one long, hard day with no end in sight. I’m sorry. I get why anxiety is high, tempers are high, and trust is low.
But there is a an end in sight. Over the past many months, BC Housing has been working hard to secure indoor spaces as a pathway to permanent housing for those living in parks. 114 people have already moved inside and over the next few weeks the people remaining outdoors will be offered spaces to move into. The spaces aren’t permanent homes and they’re not perfect. But they are a pathway to permanent housing, some of which is already under construction and will be open by the end of the year.
To those of you living outside, please strongly consider taking the offers that you receive. I know that a transition to indoors can be really difficult. That’s why as much as possible, we’re trying to take a person-centred approach so as you move inside you get the supports you need and have the networks you need to settle in. I know there are strong communities that have formed in some of the parks, and as much as possible, BC Housing is trying to keep people together who want to stay together.
Once someone makes the decision to move inside, we want to do everything we can to support them in that transition and on their pathway to permanent housing. That’s why we’re taking a compassionate, tailored approach to bylaw enforcement until the new transitional homes are ready to move into. City staff have put together a thoughtful, graduated approach to bylaw enforcement that recognizes individual needs while ensuring that the bylaw prohibiting daytime sheltering is enforced. Council has supported this direction. You can read the report here (item E1a).
People who accept an offer and are preparing to move from parks will not be required to pack up daily. Bylaw officers will allow time for moving into the transitional housing locations and will assist with downsizing belongings. When indoor spaces are ready, Bylaw and outreach workers will assist people with packing their items in totes and helping people move. Effective May 1, people who do not accept an offer will be required to take down, pack up and remove their tent and belongings daily by 7 a.m.
Council has approved this enforcement strategy and authorized the City Manager and City Solicitor to proceed with a court injunction to enforce the Parks Regulation Bylaw should voluntary compliance not be achieved. This provides the City with flexibility to respond to evolving situations quickly and effectively.
To all Victorians, I know that everyone is exhausted more than a year into a global health pandemic from job losses, from keeping your small businesses afloat with yet more restrictions, from social isolation, from worries about the future. Despite our collective exhaustion, can we please find it in ourselves to come together over what will potentially be a difficult transition period for everyone as people move inside over the next few weeks and 24/7 sheltering ends.
How can we welcome people into their new neigbourhoods? How can we have patience as the final moves take a bit of time? Can we muster up the grace, kindness and generosity that will be needed? In strong, resilient communities, no one is to blame, and everyone is responsible.