Thanks for taking the time to write to me this past week with your concerns, feedback and suggestions about sheltering in parks, housing, homelessness and related issues. In order to make sure I respond to everyone in a timely way, I’m writing back to you all at once. I’ve been doing this since August.
For those of you who have written for the first time this past week and would like a bit more background on what the City and Province are doing to end 24/7 sheltering by March 31st, please take the time to read through previous posts. The two recent posts that have been read the most (and that I therefore assume have useful and relevant information!) are this one from January 3rd and this one from January 10th. To receive a weekly update you can sign up here.
I use headings so you can skip to the section that is of most interest. Though I’m always happy when people tell me they read through the whole email, as there’s lots of information.
59 Days and Your Concerns and Suggestions
Many of you have written this week with ongoing concerns about people sheltering outside and have noted the negative impact this is having on you, especially those of you who live near the sheltering sights. What I find moving is that most of your emails are couched in compassion – you understand the difficult plight and the vulnerability of people sleeping outside, but you have your own concerns too.
You’ve had to add security cameras, you’ve had items stolen, you’re not feeling safe in your own homes, you’re going to sleep with stress and waking up with stress. Or you’re not able to sleep because of loud music, or someone having a mental health breakdown, or yelling and fighting. And you have to wake up to go to work in the morning, to keep your job and your own sanity during the pandemic. You feel like I don’t hear you, like I’m not listening.
And now I can already hear the emails in response to this one telling me that by acknowledging the concerns of housed residents I am demonizing people who are homeless, saying that they are all criminals, or all have mental health challenges, etc. I’m of course not saying this. I’ve spoken with some of you who are living outside and I know that you all have your own story and that everyone’s situation is unique.
I’ve asked many people over the past 10 months who have expressed concerns and say that I don’t hear them what would make them feel heard. What would make you feel heard? And the answer that I’ve received, repeatedly, is “Get people out of parks and parking lots and into proper housing with supports. Do something!”
There are 59 days left until March 31st to offer everyone currently sleeping in a park an indoor sheltering opportunity as a pathway to permanent housing. We made some good progress this week and have now identified a total of 127 indoor spaces. This week the Province announced that it will re-open 45 spaces in the Save on Foods Memorial arena on March 1st.
This week also a youth hostel opened with 27 spaces for youth ages 19-24. Some of these youth will be coming directly from parks, others from existing sheltering sites, freeing up space for others to move in from parks. The youth hostel is a new approach to housing that’s an opportunity for both housing and employment. The program has been co-designed by youth who moved out of Topaz Park into the Travelodge last May, along with the youth staff at the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness. Please take the time to listen to this amazing interview on CBC by a very bright young man, Jarvis Neglia, who is the project lead.
That takes us to 72 spaces. In addition, between 25 to 30 rooms at the Capital City Centre Motel will re-open in the middle of February so that takes us, conservatively speaking, to 97 spaces. If we add in the 30 person Transitional Tiny Home Community, that takes us to 127 spaces. There is still more work for the Province to do to identify the additional 75 – 100 spaces needed. Every time I speak with Housing Minister Eby I am confident that this work is underway and that we will meet the goal of ensuring that everyone currently living in a park is offered an indoor space by March 31st at which point 24/7 camping will come to an end. We hear you.
I know there are concerns from those who live near 940 Caledonia about the proposed Transitional Tiny Home Community. In the coming weeks we will share more details including information about the kind of housing that will be provided there, the programming, and the operator. There will also be a formal opportunity for the public to weigh in on the project at a Thursday evening Council meeting. And, as soon as the operator is announced, the City will hold regular meetings with the operator and neighbours just like we’ve been doing at the City-owned former Boys and Girls Club on Yates St. since 2016 when 48 people moved in there. When this site was proposed as a shelter, there was significant neighbourhood concern and opposition. The City, the operator, BC Housing and the neighbourhood have worked together well over the past five years to integrate My Place into the neighbourhood.
Thanks also for your suggestions and ideas. Someone sent this very interesting article about how Singapore creates enough housing for everyone in the country. Someone else shared this article on supported housing in the UK and asked what kind of models we are proposing here. There is a range of housing available in Greater Victoria from rental supplements in the private market with a support worker or peer support worker visiting on a regular basis, to the other end of the continuum which is supportive housing with 24/7 around the clock staffing and supports available.
The motels that the Province bought and leased have these 24/7 wrap around supports. But there is a difference between retrofitting a motel and purpose built supportive housing where the buildings can be designed to offer the kinds of supports needed. This is the longer-term work that is needed beyond March 31st. There is also need for complex care housing, which I discuss below.
A National Crisis
Some of you write on a regular basis, my harshest critics, blaming myself and Council for creating the homelessness situation here and for allowing 24/7 camping.
In most major cities in Canada right now there are 24/7 encampments. Here’s a December 6th 2020 story about a 40 person encampment in Montreal. It reads in part, “While tent cities like this are new to Montreal, shelter workers and experts say it’s not necessarily a sign that significantly more people in Montreal are homeless. But they all agree that the pandemic has made homelessness more visible and disrupted the way people access both formal and informal services.”
And in Halifax, residents are beginning to build structures for their unhoused neighbours. As this January 25th 2021 article reads, “Halifax officials said in a statement Monday that residents of the ‘homeless encampment’ in Dartmouth would not be evicted unless and until their need for adequate shelter is met.”
In Hamilton in October, two large tent encampments were dismantled only after everyone was offered indoor sheltering opportunities: “The city said in a release it has focused on helping encampment residents with moving into emergency housing options over the past week.”
From London, Ontario, (my hometown), London Quietly Lifts Ban on Encampments during the Pandemic. The article notes similar logic as we’ve relied on in Victoria: “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve all been asked to stay home to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. But for the hundreds of people who live on London’s streets, that’s not even a possibility. It’s one of the reasons why the City of London quietly lifted a ban on homeless encampments since the pandemic began in March.”
And from Toronto, Canada’s largest city, No Plans to Dismantle Encampments as Advocates Call for Increased Support for Homeless: “’No encampment clearings are scheduled. We continue to offer people, on an individual basis, safe indoor space.’ The city has said previously that it will only clear encampments once everyone at that location has been offered safe indoor space and that a notice would then be issued to give people time to collect their belongings.”
Victoria’s situation is not unique. Our policy of not displacing people from encampments but rather working to identify needs and move people inside reflects the same practices as other city councils across the country.
Complex Care Housing
Some of you have shared experiences of feeling unsafe when encountering unpredictable behaviours as you’re going about your daily life. We know there are people living in Victoria and in communities across British Columbia who have complex needs that aren’t been met by the existing housing available.
That why this week the BC Urban Mayors’ Caucus which I co-chair with Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran met with both Ministers Eby (Housing) and Malcolmson (Mental Health and Addictions) to express our support for them to take action on complex care housing. Here is the statement we released on Friday and here is the Times Colonist coverage of the meeting. This statement addresses some of the concerns that you have shared with me this week and in past weeks.
Statement from B.C. Urban Mayors’ Caucus on Meetings with the Provincial Government to Develop a Complex Care Housing Pilot
Date: Friday, January 29, 2021
For Immediate Release
VICTORIA, BC – Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran and Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, co-chairs of the B.C. Urban Mayors’ Caucus released the following statement following meetings this week with Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Housing David Eby and Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson to discuss strengthening mental health and substance use supports in the face of the ongoing homelessness and opioid crises.
“On behalf of the B.C. Urban Mayors’ Caucus, we would like to thank the Ministers for meeting this week to begin to plan how we can work together to accelerate B.C.’s response to addressing the mental health, substance use and homelessness crises. It’s great to see the priorities laid out in our Blueprint for British Columbia’s Urban Future reflected in the Ministers’ mandate letters.
“We are seeing historic investments from the Province to build more affordable housing, which is serving the needs of many people in our communities. Yet even with this unprecedented effort, people with complex needs are falling through the cracks and aren’t being served by the supportive housing models and programs currently available.
“That’s why the B.C. Urban Mayors’ Caucus wants to work with Ministers Eby, Malcolmson and the provincial government to develop a five-site pilot project for 40-50 unit Complex Care Housing sites within a year: one on the Island, one in the North, one in the Interior and two in the Lower Mainland.
“This five-site pilot project is the necessary first step in filling a gap in the continuum of housing and health care to meet the needs of vulnerable people who require mental health and substance use supports and services unique to their needs. Some of them may need extra supports on a pathway to recovery. Some of them may need to be in this kind of care longer term. This pilot project is an opportunity to learn on a small-scale, five-site basis and then – building on the learnings – to create additional sites in communities across the province.
“The challenges we are seeing in our communities are expanding faster than the solutions. Our vulnerable residents are at risk without proper health supports to meet their complex needs. Our residents and business owners are frustrated. And economic recovery from the pandemic will be compromised without action now. It’s time to try new approaches.
“As Mayors of B.C.’s largest urban centres, we look forward to working with the provincial government on this pilot and would like funding for it to be included in Budget 2021. We are here to help the Ministers and the Province make this pilot a success for all.”
Jann Arden’s Advice
As always, I try to end with something to inspire us all. I don’t know about the rest of you but I’m feeling really tired. I went to bed at 9:30pm last night and set my alarm for 6:00am this morning as Sunday is my “catch up” day and there’s a lot of work to do. But I couldn’t pull myself out of bed until 8:00am. I’m tired of the pandemic and all the stress it’s putting on our community from our small businesses which are just holding on, to those who have lost their jobs, to those who are feeling isolated at home, to those who have no home to isolate in.
This is an excerpt from a post that singer Jann Arden shared on Facebook earlier on in the pandemic. It seems even more important now as we’re nearing the end. It is my Sunday offering to you all.
I suppose I could conjure up the voices of worry in my head. But I’m not going to.
Worry is a liar.
This little shard of history will fold over itself.
It’s going to take some time. It will require patience and more than anything else, an enormous amount of kindness.
Treat other people kindly.
Take only what you need.
Share what you have.
Encourage others whenever you can.
Be positive even when you’re not sure.
Smile when you pass a stranger on the street.
We are not each other’s enemy, we are each other’s salvation.
There is no life without a community of souls.
We imperfect souls blazing through the universe in search of true love. A true love of ALL living things.
Let us protect what we have left when this lifts.
Let’s not go back.
We have it in us to be so much more.
BECOME THE PERSON YOU WERE MEANT TO BE.
With hope and gratitude,
Lisa / Mayor Helps