These buildings are samples of the types of homes under construction that will provide transitional and permanent housing for those currently experiencing homelessness or living in supportive housing, freeing up space for people experiencing homelessness to move in. There are thousands of units under construction in our region, including at least 500 with rents of $375 per month.

As I write this, there are approximately four structures remaining in City Parks 24/7, down from over 260 last fall. This is the lowest number of people living in City parks that we’ve seen in many years. And while this doesn’t account for everyone living outside, we are also seeing the lowest number of people sheltering outdoors over night than we’ve seen in years. It’s a real shame that it’s taken us a pandemic to secure the housing and health supports we have this past year. But the efforts are working. And we can’t let up now.

We can end chronic homelessness in Victoria. It’s going to take the same focused effort that so many have put in over the past year. If close to 600 people can move inside in one year, in the middle of a global health pandemic when everyone is already stretched and stressed, surely we can focus on the people remaining outside and set our sights as a community on what’s known as “functional zero”.

According to a working paper produced by the Homeless Hub, “Functional Zero is achieved when there are enough services, housing and shelter beds for everyone who needs it. In this approach, emergency shelters are meant to be temporary and the goal is permanent housing. While the focus on supports is to prevent homelessness to begin with, this may not always be possible and in such cases, a system that is responsive and acts quickly is essential. A key aim of homeless-serving systems is to provide immediate access to shelter and crisis services, without barriers to entry, while permanent stable housing and appropriate supports are being secured.”

When we achieve functional zero, we will have brought and end to the humanitarian crisis of people sheltering in parks and public spaces when they lose their homes.

Achieving “functional zero” requires the creation of what’s know as a “By-Name List” or BNL. The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness defines a BNL as “a real-time, person-specific list of all people known to be experiencing homelessness in your community. It includes a robust set of data points that support Coordinated Access and prioritization at a household level and an understanding of homelessness inflow and outflow at a systems level.” The development of a BNL is underway in our region as a key 2021-2022 action item in the Community’s 2019-2024 Plan to end chronic homelessness.

We’re closer than we ever have been before to ending homelessness in Victoria.

We have been operating for many years – and in particular during the pandemic – within a reality where homelessness in Victoria has become normalized. In recognition of this reality, we have accepted the need for people to shelter in City parks even as we worked toward permanent solutions to homelessness. But we haven’t been able to collectively envision a city without homelessness. This has to change. We need to re-envision. This past year has shown us what is possible.

We need to keep going to build a robust housing and transitional shelter ecosystem.

We need to continue to work with the Province on complex care housing – for the people who currently don’t fit into any of the existing housing options because of their complex needs. We need to ensure that those currently left behind get the kinds of supports and care they need in order to be successful in housing, and to not be evicted back to the streets and parks. The BC Urban Mayors’ Caucus is taking an active role with the provincial Ministries of Housing and Mental Health and Addictions to develop a framework for complex care housing and options for investment in complex care housing services or sites in the near term.

And we need to continue to support initiatives like the Regional Rent Bank and the Community Centre Housing Outreach Coordinator program, to prevent people from falling into homelessness.

Think reaching functional zero is impossible? It’s not. Medicine Hat Alberta reached that target in 2019 after ten years of effort. This blog post details how they got there. We’re following the same steps they took. We’re coordinating assessment and access. We’re working with people with lived experiences of homelessness. We’re prioritizing Indigenous people and working to support the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness in providing culturally supportive housing and a dual model of care, blending both Indigenous and Western medicines.

Everybody is already mobilized in our community and working towards the goal of functional zero. And the federal government and the provincial government are mobilized too. In the almost-decade that I’ve been at the Council table, there has never been so much money pouring into housing and health supports.

The current Community Plan to End Homelessness says we will hit functional zero in 2024. That’s way too far away. COVID-19 has taught us that we can move quickly in a crisis. COVID-19 also revealed the chasms in the health and housing ecosystem in the province, leaving those already vulnerable even more so when the pandemic hit. At the same time, it’s been an unprecedented period of investment in housing and health supports. It has also been a time of lasting relationship building and deep collaboration among the City, BC Housing, Island Health, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness, the CRD, housing and social service providers, peers and people with lived experience of homelessness, and many others.

Nearing the end of the pandemic, and with the hard work of everyone involved, we are closer to ending chronic homelessness in Victoria than we’ve ever been before. We have fewer people living outside than we’ve seen in years. This is a moment to keep focused on the goal of achieving functional zero. This means that when people lose their homes, there is a robust social system – and a community – in place to catch them.

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