Decampment working group update, Rent supplements, questions answered and a personal note – Mayor’s Sunday email – October 18 2020

As part of a temporary distributed model of outdoor sheltering during the Provincial State of Emergency and the COVID-19 global health pandemic, staff have put these signs up in parks where there are facilities and running water. The signs outline where in the park sheltering is permitted and where it’s not and the regulations for people to follow.

Hello everyone,

Thanks to all of you who have written to me this past week with questions and comments on the situation of people sheltering in parks and the impact this is having on everyone. As I’ve been doing for the past few months , I read all your emails and then respond to them all at once on Sunday mornings. I also turn the email into a blog post to make sure all the information is shared as widely as possible. Please feel free to forward or share.

This email will be broken into three sections. If you’re only interested in one topic, please just skip down to that. Though I do encourage everyone to take the time to read the whole thing! First I’ll give an update on how the decampment process of moving people from outdoors to indoors is going. Then I’ll address your questions and concerns. Finally, I’ll end with a personal note.

If you’ve received a Sunday email before and asked me to “take you off my list”, I don’t have a list. At the end of the week, we gather up all the emails of people who have written in the past week on sheltering. So if you write to me during the week, I’m going to write you back! However, I do have a blog and if you’d like to stay updated on a weekly basis, you can sign up here to do so. Many people who have received previous Sunday emails have signed up to stay in touch that way and I really appreciate it.

Community Wellness Alliance Decampment Working Group Update
In many past emails and posts I’ve outlined the work of the Community Wellness Alliance Decampment Working Group which I chair. This group – made up of Island Health, BC Housing, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness and Our Place – meets every Friday to focus on the work of moving people from outside to inside.

The Community Wellness Alliance – which is a much larger group that meets monthly – has committed to getting 200 people who are currently living in parks inside by December 31st of this year. With approximately 250 people currently living in parks, this will make a big difference. People with the longest experiences of homelessness and the deepest vulnerability will be given priority, which means people recently arrived here will not. We’ve set the goal of 200 and we’re working really, really hard to meet it.

Where will these 200 people live? There are 60 units opening in November in Langford and View Royal as part of the Regional Housing First Program (RHFP). These units rent at $375 per month. People currently living in motels, shelters or supportive housing can move into these units and then 60 people can move from outside into the spaces vacated. Some people living outside may also move directly into the RHFP units. There are also 24 units for treatment available at Our Place’s Therapeutic Recovery Community in View Royal. In addition, BC Housing and Island Health are providing 110 “rent supplements”. This is a top-up provided to the income assistance rate which makes it possible for people to move from supportive housing into market rental units. And then people can move from parks into the supportive housing units that are vacated. There is one further opportunity for housing that will be available before the end of the year, bringing the total number of spaces to above 200. That opportunity can’t be announced at this time because there is no sitting government during an election.

The 110 rent supplement units are key to our success. And I’m going to ask for your help. Rent supplements mean that people have between $750 and $825 per month to spend on rent in private market rental units. The people moving into units funded by rent supplements are ready to move out of shelters or supportive housing. They may need light supports that can be provided by Island Health or others. They don’t need or want to be in supportive housing or shelters any more. In fact, at Friday’s meeting it was reported that three people currently living in shelters – motivated by the availability of rent supplements – went out and found their own apartments in the private market.

So far in total, only seven units have been made available for November 1st by private market landlords willing to rent to people moving out of supportive housing. The challenge before us is massive. The Downtown Victoria Business Association and Chamber of Commerce – both of which sit on the Community Wellness Alliance – are reaching out to private sector landlords and property management companies. The non-profits that have current tenants in supportive housing who are ready to live independently are also reaching out to landlords. And, Island Health is also appointing a person to coordinate outreach to landlords. If you or anyone you know has a vacancy coming up for November 1st or December 1st and would like to be part of the solution email me mayor@victoria.ca

This whole “positive flow” process – from supportive housing to Regional Housing First or market units and then from parks to supportive housing – is facilitated by the Coordinated Assessment and Access (CAA) process run by BC Housing, Island Health and the CRD. As vacancies become available, the CAA placement table meets and decides who is the best fit for which housing opportunity based on the needs people living outdoors or in shelters have identified in their housing applications.

Your Questions and Concerns, My Responses and Reflections
This past week many of you have written concerned about people moving to smaller parks in your neighbourhoods. Some of you wonder how these parks were chosen, why there was no consultation and have asked for the parks in your neighbourhoods to be exempted. You’ve said you’re afraid of having homeless camps set up. Some of you have asked why middle class families who pay good taxes should have to endure this.

Some of you have said that you live in North Park near Central Park and that your neighbourhood doesn’t feel safe. You’ve taken the time to write detailed accounts of your experiences so that I will understand what you are going through. Some of the things you’ve shared are awful and should not be happening in your neighbourhood or in any neighbourhood. You long for the days when kids ran and played freely in Central Park. Some of you have said that this unpredictable, sometimes scary and violent behaviour is happening because people don’t have the help they need. This isn’t good for them but it isn’t good for you either. Some of you have recognized that not all people who are living without homes are the same.

Some of you have said that you’re not NIMBY’s (I hate that term by the way, and I don’t use it. I think it is divisive, pits “us” against “them” and doesn’t help move things forward), and that you want to help. You’ve asked about housing options (see above), you’ve asked about more shelters in the meantime, you’ve asked if there are enough mental health and addictions supports, and you’ve also asked if once these things are in place, or well on their way, if we can return to 7pm to 7am camping and not allow people to camp in parks during the day. Someone else said they think we made a mistake to allow 24/7 camping in the first place.

The general thrust of many of the emails is that you want your parks back, you want your kids to be and feel safe, and how could we have let this happen?

As I’ve said in past emails, I want parks to be able to be enjoyed by everyone. I want kids to feel safe. And seniors too. I don’t want people camping near schools, or daycares or anywhere. This is what we are working towards. And we will get there.

Right now we’re in the middle of a global health pandemic. When the pandemic hit, shelters halved their numbers to meet distancing requirements and sent people out on the streets. People who were couch surfing or staying with friends were sent outside as well, as we were all told to get in our bubbles and stay there. Around the world, the number one refrain during March and April was, “Stay at home.” Here in Victoria and in other many other places all across the country, municipal governments allowed people who couldn’t follow the basic public health advice, “Stay at home,” to shelter in place. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Henry advised on June 8th in a memo to all mayors in British Columbia that encampments should not be cleared unless there safe indoor spaces for people to go. At this time, she has not rescinded her advice or sent any further memos.

Now here we are all these months later and we’re not through the pandemic and people are still sheltering in place, outside. This puts us all in a very tough spot. I hear your collective cries for help, for action. I know that for many of you who have written to me, me actually hearing you would look like the immediate end to camping in parks and returning parks to all members of the public, not just to members of the public without homes. I don’t know what else to do except to keep working on this with all the energy and tools I have so that eventually, you will feel heard.

In terms of how parks are chosen and or exempted, I’ll share a note from our Director of Parks. For clarity – for those of you who have been asking our Director of Parks to exempt certain parks, the decision-making authority to do so lies with Council not with staff.

“The  homelessness situation is obviously a major challenge that is affecting many in the community, both housed and unhoused.  While the provincial government works on addressing the primary causes of this complex issue, municipal governments like Victoria are doing what we can to address the symptoms and mitigate risks.  

“The amendments to the Parks Bylaw represent one suite of tactics that are intended to reduce some of the health and safety risks, while respecting the legal right for unhoused citizens to shelter in parks.  The new regulations allow the City further discretion about how and where sheltering occurs, by requiring spacing between shelters and other park amenities, and limiting the size of tents.  As you’ve noted Council also approved adding parks to the list of areas where sheltering is prohibited, which are immediately adjacent to schools, used as primary grounds for students and under license with the City for this purpose. 

“Pemberton Park is certainly close to schools and undoubtedly used by students at times, but it did not meet the criteria above. As you can imagine, if the criteria was expanded to include parks with similar uses many more would be excluded from the list, and the result would be to push sheltering into even smaller parks that do not have basic services like washrooms and water fountains.

“I sincerely appreciate the concerns that you and other residents have raised and I wish that there were more permanent solutions immediately available for those experiencing homelessness and serious health issues.  None of us in the City team believe that the current state is an acceptable one, however, we are attempting to deal with this emergency in a thoughtful and reasonable way.”

In terms of suggested solutions, someone this week suggested that new developments should include affordable housing. The City’s Inclusionary Housing Policy requires new condo buildings over a certain size to have some form of affordable housing, or make a contribution to the housing reserve. We’ve seen the most success with the incorporation of below-market home ownership units. This means that people currently living in market rental units that can now afford homes will vacate those rental units, take some pressure off the rental vacancy rate making more market units available for those ready to move out of supportive housing. In addition, in the City alone there are over 800 affordable and supportive housing units currently in the development process including 151 units right near my house.

A group of you wrote suggesting this approach:

  • The rainy season is on our doorstep. No one should be left outside.
  • It is past time to stop treating the “unhoused” as if they are one demographic. Very different needs call for very different interventions. 
  • There are 300+ beds at Oak Bay Lodge. 75 beds at Mt. Tolmie. There is Victoria Armoury.  S.J. Willis School, but for Vic High renovations, offers comparative insight.
  • These buildings and others that your staff can be tasked to find have facilities to maintain hygiene, safety and dignity.
  • Collectively, they provide configurations appropriate to the very different demographics represented among the unhoused: the needs are diverse. 
  • All can be properly addressed as a public health emergency when so declared.

Someone else wrote and suggested turning the historic Bank Street School into a shelter. I wholeheartedly agree that some of these are options worth exploring. Unfortunately Council does not have the authority to commandeer facilities owned by other governments for the purposes of providing shelter as we clearly saw in our attempts to secure Oak Bay Lodge. This Times Colonist article, CRD Directors Vote to Let Oak Bay Lodge Sit Vacant outlines the challenge.

A number of people also wrote asking if I would support The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness 6-Point Plan to end homelessness in Canada. Yes!

And someone took the time to submit a drawing for a tiny home.

I appreciate the orientation towards solutions. In a crisis, every idea put forward to solve it deserves consideration. There are some folks working on ideas for Temporary Tiny Towns. Others are looking to see if we can set up large tents (like the kinds you see at festivals, but with sides) in parking lots across the region. Inside each of the large tents would be intentional clustered communities of 30 smaller tents. I’m throwing my energy and support into exploring as many of these ideas as possible. We also need the next government – whoever it may be – to step in and immediately address the mental health and addictions issue. As myself and my fellow mayors in the BC Urban Mayor’s Caucus wrote in our Blueprint for BC’s Urban Future, we need solutions immediately, in months not years.

A Personal Note
Every Sunday morning I go for a run. During my past few runs I’ve noticed something interesting. I noticed that most often when I’m running I’m just looking down at the ground a few steps in front of me. This is good and necessary for sure, to make sure I don’t trip. But it’s really limiting and narrow. All I can see is the ground in front of me. Last Sunday, I looked up, looked ahead, as far ahead as I could see. My view widened and it felt good to see the bigger picture and the longer term. This morning when out for a run, about half way through, I remembered to look up, look ahead. And when I did, I felt lonely – all that space in front of me.

We’re going through a really difficult time as a community right now and for many of us, for different reasons, we’re probably experiencing some of the most difficult circumstances in our lifetimes. What would it be like, what would it feel like, to look up together as a community, to look ahead. To know that this winter is going to be difficult. That we’ll have people camping in our parks in the wind and rain and snow. That this likely means some continued disruption and negative experiences for all of us.

While we’re looking at this situation in front of us, working hard to resolve it, can we also look to the future together, to the near future, next spring and summer when we’ve got people housed, when parks are once again for everyone. If we do this together, it may make it easier for all of us, and maybe just a little less lonely, a little more connected.

I’ll end as I did a few months ago now with a quote from a book that’s been a life line for me throughout the pandemic, Pema Chodron’s Comfortable With Uncertainty: 108 teachings on cultivating fearlessness and compassion. In teaching 102, she says, “As a result of compassion practice, we start to have a deeper understanding of the roots of suffering. We aspire not only that the outer manifestations of suffering decrease … We aspire to dissolve the myth that we are separate.”

With gratitude,

Lisa / Mayor Helps

Thanksgiving, How Housing Works in the City of Victoria, Sheltering in Parks – mayor’s Sunday email – October 11 2020

North Park Neighbourhood Association member Allison Ashcroft hands a toque to a person in her neighbourhood who is living without a home in Central Park. Photo Credit: Luke Connor.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone,

For those of you who might be wondering why the mayor is writing to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving, it’s because you’ve written to me in the past week about sheltering in parks. I’m still receiving a high number of emails on this topic so – as I’ve been doing for the past many Sundays now – I read all your emails and then share information that is hopefully of interest to all of those who have written.

This week’s email is going to be a bit long. First, I want to take the time to give thanks. Second, I’d like to give a really thorough answer to one particular email I received Saturday evening on how housing works in the City of Victoria that I think is important for everyone to know. And third, I’ll address your comments. To make it easier for you to read, I’ve put headings in; feel free to skip directly to what you’re interested in. For those of you receiving a Sunday email for the first time: if you’d like to continue to stay up to date on sheltering in parks and other related matters, you can follow my blog here where I also post these emails.

In case not everyone makes it all the way to the end for the sign off, I’ll say now that I hope you and your loved ones have a safe and happy thanksgiving. Even though this has been a very difficult year for us as a city, province, country and world, there are so many things that we have to be thankful for – large and small. I hope this weekend brings with it some time for reflection and grace.

Thanks Giving to the North Park Neighbourhood Association
For the past many months now there has been a growing tent encampment in Central Park in the North Park Neighbourhood. Council recently passed bylaws that will mean some people will need to move from Central Park to other parks around the city so that there are smaller encampments. Although there is no good park for anyone to be living in anywhere in a country as prosperous as ours where the federal government enacted legislation last year asserting the right to housing, we know from experience that smaller encampments are better for everyone than large ones.

There have been many people in the community working hard out there to respond to COVID-related homelessness, from service providers and front line workers, nurses and doctors funded by Island Health, to BC Housing to the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness and the Aborginal Coaliton to End Homelessness, to our own city staff in parks, public works and bylaw. They all deserve thanks.

This weekend, for thanks giving, I want to express special gratitude to the North Park Neighbourhood Association (NPNA). The NPNA is a small neighbourhood association with no community centre and few resources, in the poorest part of the city. When people started arriving in their neighbourhood in tents, they stepped in rather than turned away. They found some funding from the Red Cross to help in the emergency. They’ve been building relationships with their unhoused neighbours. Knowing that the winter is coming, over this weekend they arranged for Cook Street Castle to drop off pallets to get people off the wet ground. They arranged for some futon mattresses to be delivered for the elderly and ailing residents of the encampment (who should be safe, warm and secure in the vacant Oak Bay Lodge) to make them more comfortable until they can move indoors.

They also called on the expertise in their own community to help. Jennie on the right in the photo below is an avid back-country camper; she spent her day Saturday helping the people living outside to secure their sites against the fall rain and wind which are already beginning.

A member of the NPNA said that when people sheltering move to other neighbourhoods, NPNA volunteers are going to go and set up for a few hours at parks where the people are moving to. They are going to notify other neighbourhood associations to come out and meet their new neighbours so that hopefully mutual respect and the volunteer spirit exemplified by the NPNA will help the people living outside with a smooth transition and will help to shed some of the fear.

The NPNA staff and volunteers don’t have their heads in the sand; they aren’t oblivious to the challenges that having a tent encampment in the middle of their neighbourhood are causing. They see on a daily basis the impacts of untreated mental health and addictions. They see the impacts of poverty, of homelessness. But instead of turning away, they’ve stepped in in a wholehearted way. For this they deserve our collective thanks. What they are doing and the approach they are taking shouldn’t be remarkable.

If there’s nothing else you take away from this section of the blog post, please take 10 minutes to listen to Sarah Murray, the Executive Director of the NPNA on CBC.

How Housing Works in the City of Victoria
On Saturday evening, I received this email, which I have permission to share:

Hi Lisa,

I live in North Park, right across the street from Central Park.  The influx of tents into our park has raised a lot of questions for me.  To be honest, it started with anger and resentment, but the more I dug into the number of shelter spaces, zoning restrictions, BC housing, Island Health, CRD meeting minutes (yes…I read meeting minutes…I’m so desperate, I read CRHD meeting minutes), the more I realized that I don’t understand how we go from tax dollars to shelter beds.

Here’s the question:  How do the Feds, the Province, and city create shelter for those who need it?  How is it supposed to work?

Here’s my guess:  The feds give money to the province, the province distributes the money through BC housing, the CRD makes a plan for the region, the city adjusts zoning and bylaws to fit the CRHC plan, non-profits staff and run the shelters.  Is that close?

I think there’s a strong current of anger and confusion in the city…I can’t be the only one who doesn’t understand how this is supposed to work…and I’m worried that anger is going to land on the wrong place.  Some clarity might go a long way. 

I’m certain you’re swamped with work, but I’d really like to understand this a bit better. I appreciate you taking the time to read this. I know you have very little to spare.

Thanks,

In 1994 the federal government invested roughly $113 per capita in affordable housing. By 2014, the federal government was only spending $58 per capita on affordable housing and the population of the country grew by 30% during that same period. In the 1980s and 1990s the provincial government closed institutions that had housed people with complex needs with the hopes of a more humane and integrated approach to mental health and addictions.

Those two things combined – and many other factors as well – have led to a downhill slide for the past three decades in terms of housing, homelessness, mental health and addictions in British Columbia and probably across the country. So now, everyone is playing catch up.

The federal government has a National Housing Strategy and has committed $55 billion to addressing housing and homelessness. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Company (CMHC) which is the crown corp responsible for delivering a lot of the housing strategy has declared boldly that by 2030 everyone in Canada will have a home they can afford. And in 2019, the federal government passed the National Housing Strategy Act which made housing a human right. The federal government also runs the Reaching Home Program which distributes funding directly to local communities to help address homelessness. In Victoria this program is administered through the CRD.

In British Columbia, BC Housing is the agency that delivers funding and expertise for the provincial government to communities. BC Housing’s preferred model is for non-profit housing providers to own and operate buildings and for BC Housing to fund their construction. BC Housing does own some buildings especially some of the new modular buildings that have opened around the province in the past few years. Island Health also builds and operates – or contracts out the operations of – housing sites for people who also have medical needs.

The Capital Regional District has a Housing and Land Banking function. That function has been incredibly active in the past four years with the creation and implementation of the Regional Housing First Program. This is where the rubber hits the road. The CRD secured $80 million from the federal and provincial governments and put in $40 million of our own to build 2000 units of housing including 400 units that rent at $375 per month and another significant number that are below market. 900 of these units are under construction right now across the region.

In addition, the Capital Regional Housing Corporation (CRHC) – a fully owned subsidiary of the CRD – builds and runs housing. Seventy percent of the CRHC units are rent-geared-to-income or RGI, this means that the rent is geared to incomes that people make. The other 30% are close to or slightly below market rates. The CRHC gets funding directly from BC Housing and also through the Regional Housing First Program. The rents cover the operating costs.

The City of Victoria does not build or run housing or shelters. The City has an Affordable Housing Trust Fund that we replenish each year in the budget process. This fund is distributed on a per bedroom basis to non-profit housing providers for construction costs. We grant $10,000 per bedroom for units that serve the lowest income people in our community. The per bedroom amount is to incentivize the development of more family sized units.

The City also swaps, uses or buys city-owned land for the purposes of building affordable housing. For example there are 130 units of affordable housing that will go on top of our new fire hall on Johnson Street. We have also partnered with the school district and swapped and harmonized land ownership for 151 units of affordable housing in Fernwood near Vic High, which will be run by the CRHC and another 88 units of affordable housing on city and school district owned land in Burnside Gorge to be run by Pacifica Housing.

In addition, the City looks to use our own vacant buildings to offer up as shelters. The old Boys and Girls Club on Yates street has been a shelter since 2016. It is owned by the City, funded by BC Housing and operated by Our Place Society.

Shelters (usually mats on the floor) are funded by BC Housing and run by non-profit societies in spaces that are donated by community centres, churches or other volunteer agencies.

Island Health provides health care and supports to people in supportive housing and also supports people who need lighter supports but can live more independently.

Phew! That’s a lot of explaining. And as I typed all this up, I realized again what I already know in my bones: the only way to address homelessness, mental health, addictions and poverty is through deep collaboration and the combining of resources. Even though the mayor has no official role to play in all of this, as the co-chair of the Coalition to End Homelessness, the Chair of the Capital Regional Housing Corporation, and as someone who knows how to bring people together, I’ve been working hard with all the agencies above before and throughout the pandemic. Our collective goal right now, through the Community Wellness Alliance Decampment Working Group is to get 200 people inside before the end of the year. Making this happen will require a combination of hard work and miracles.

Your Comments Addressed
This week many of you have continued to raise concerns about people moving to smaller neighbourhood parks. Some of you have expressed not feeling safe. Some of you have asked for certain parks – Pemberton, Gonzales, Stevenson – to be exempt from camping. Some of you have asked about addressing the issue of people camping across from the South Park school playground and also with respect to proximity to day care centres. Some of you have written concerned about the crime that you’re hearing about associated with parks. Many of you have written to me asking us to support the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness 6 Point Plan to End Chronic Homelessness in Canada. Some of you have made suggestions about temporarily housing people on a cruise ship or in large modified pipes with small sleeping pods. And there is also a bit of a trend this week of people sending clips from Twitter and Facebook for me to look at.

With respect to small neighbourhood parks, there are 12 parks that have been identified where people can camp. These were chosen because they have facilities. This is a temporary measure in the midst of a global health pandemic and provincial state of emergency. It is not a long-term solution. I’ve heard from a few people this week that you or people you know are wanting to sell your homes across from certain parks. I feel sad about that. Most people really love their neighbourhoods, their neighbours and their parks. Having people camping in them is disruptive, for sure, but it’s for now, to get through the next few months as we continue to find indoor spaces. At this time Council does not plan to make any more parks exempt; we do plan to work with bylaw, parks staff, neighbourhood associations and the public to make the next few months as bearable as possible for everyone.

With respect to further changes to the parks bylaw, there may be some further tweaks that are needed. These include addressing the situation at the South Park playground and a 50 metre buffer. We also may need to make further changes to ensure that people aren’t camping too close to residences. The daycare issue is also important to give consideration to. If you did listen to Sarah Murray Executive Director of the North Park Neighbourhood Association on CBC (noted above) she lays out really well the complexity of changing the rules too many times in the process of working to get compliance.

With respect to crime, Council has given VicPD some extra resources to address some of the situations that can arise at or as a result of encampments. This past week a high-profile arrest was made and that person is now off the streets. VicPD will continue to work hard to address crime and do their best to ensure that all residents of our city are safe. All residents living near parks need to be protected from crime and predatory behaviour as do the most vulnerable people living in encampments. This is a shared issue for housed and unhoused alike.

Yes, I will support the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness 6 Point Plan to End Chronic Homelessness in Canada and will bring a motion to Council asking them to do so as well. And I’ll continue to pass along suggestions for creative housing solutions to BC Housing. The cruise ship idea has come forward before and I have passed it along.

Finally, with respect to Facebook and Twitter posts, I can’t look at them as I’m not on Facebook or Twitter. I’ve deliberately left these platforms and I won’t be returning. My assessment of these social media platforms is that they can bring out the worst of people in our community and beyond. I won’t recap my reasons here but if you want to read about why I left Facebook and Twitter you can head to these posts.

I do welcome your emails! Part of the richness of this job is that I get to hear such a diversity of opinions and perspectives, and that I have the luxury of good coffee and some time on Sunday morning to address them.

With gratitude,

Lisa / Mayor Helps

“It may be the end of the world as we know it, but other worlds are possible.” – Anab Jain, Calling for More-Than-Human Politics

Update on Sheltering in Parks, Mental Health, Addictions and Homelessness, Front Line City Staff, Election Calls to Action – Mayor’s Sunday Email – October 4 2020

Our Place, New Roads Therapeutic Recovery Community, View Royal

Hello everyone,

Thanks for writing to me this past week. As I’ve been doing for the past few weeks, I read all of your emails, and then, because there are many, I’ve been responding to everyone all together so you can all hear directly from me, and so that you can hear each other’s concerns as well. If you’d like to keep up to date and continue to receive updates, please sign up here (upper right hand side of the page).

Many of you have written this week from areas around the city near parks where people are sheltering and other places where people may be sheltering soon. You’ve expressed worry about people without homes moving in and have asked whether we can ban camping in the parks near your homes. There are 12 parks that have been identified as better than others for sheltering because they have running water and washrooms. There are also other parks where camping is allowed but that don’t have these services. There is a smaller list of parks when sheltering is prohibited. At this point, Council is not considering adding any other parks to the list of parks that are prohibited, even though we understand that there are no parks that are good for sheltering.

Others of you have written from places where people are already sheltering and expressed concerns about the situation. You’ve all pointed out that our parks are in neighbourhoods, with families and seniors and that these are not good places for people to live. I agree wholeheartedly. Especially in a global health pandemic when kids need places to play, seniors need places to walk, and people need safe indoor spaces to live. What a difficult situation we are all in.

What is hopefully starting to become clear over the election campaign that we now find ourselves in, is that this is a problem that exists in parks in urban areas across the province. This Globe and Mail article outlines the issue well. Please take the time to read it. It’s about more than just homelessness, there is also a growing conversation and concern for people who have mental health and addictions challenges and who need health care. They are being left on the streets and in our parks with untreated health conditions and it’s not good for anyone.

That’s why, this past week myself and 12 other mayors across the province representing close to 2.8 million people in British Columbia released our Blueprint for British Columbia’s Urban Future. I’ve attached share the whole Blueprint for you. There is one portion that responds directly to the emails you all wrote to me this past week, and to the hundreds of emails we’ve received since the pandemic began.

Mental Health, Substance Use and Treatment
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been an unprecedented escalation in the challenges facing our communities stemming from the mental health and substance use crises. Too many of our residents are suffering from mental health and substance use issues and, increasingly, brain injury.

These crises existed before COVID-19, but have been exacerbated by a toxic drug supply, the increased level of pandemic-related homelessness and encampments, and increasing stigma and anger from some members of our communities. Our businesses – which are already struggling from the economic impacts of COVID-19 – are facing increased break-ins and other challenges, as a result of higher rates of social disorder and unpredictable, sometimes violent behaviour from people in crisis.

We call on all parties to commit to:

1. Immediately expand the availability of the full range of substance use and mental health treatment and recovery options in our communities for both youth and adults, including appropriate facilities for those with complex needs. We need treatment on demand so people get it when they need it. We need action in months, not years.

2. Make the recent public health order regarding expanding the number of health professionals authorized to prescribe safer pharmaceutical alternatives to the toxic drug supply permanent and urge all relevant regulatory colleges to scale up access to safer pharmaceutical alternatives for people at risk across B.C.

3. While reviewing changes to the Police Act, consider alternative approaches for responding to mental health and substance use calls in the community on a 24/7 basis.

Please help us by taking up these calls to action and by voting for the candidates and the party that you think can best help to deliver these things. We all love Pemberton Park, Hollywood Park, Central Park, Beacon Hill Park, all our parks we want them to be available for everyone especially kids and seniors. And we want our un-housed neighbours, and our neighbours who need medical help to get it. This is Canada after all.

I want to address a few other things I’ve heard this week in your emails and this has to do with city staff and how they are working with people who are living without homes. Some of you have expressed concerns that we are taking too long to express the new bylaws. Others of you have said that you don’t feel that city staff are directly engaged enough with people living outside. And some of you have said that the approach city staff are taking are balanced and humane. There was a really good article in the Times Colonist today that captures the City’s approach to bylaw enforcement. Please take the time to read it here. And please share it with others.

For example, there are currently 117 tents in Central Park and there are only – according to the new bylaws – supposed to be approximately 21 tents. This means that a lot of people are going to need to move to other parks, where there is currently no one sheltering. Bylaw staff and parks staff have been working closely with the people living in the park as well as with the North Park Neighbourhood Association to ensure that the transition to new parks is safe, orderly and that when people arrive in the new sites, they are adhering to the new bylaws. This is difficult, painstaking work for everyone.

City staff working on the front lines deserve an incredible amount of thanks for the hard work they are doing helping to manage a homelessness, mental health and addictions crisis in the middle of a global health pandemic. They are on the frontlines with the outreach workers. They are also the ones who respond to call after call for areas to be cleaned, needles to be picked up, disputes to be resolved. I am deeply grateful to them for their work. As you’re walking through a park, or noticing some of our hard working parks, public works and bylaw staff out there in other places around the city, I’d love if you would take the time to stop and say thank you to them. Our parks and bylaw staff are not experts at managing mental health, addictions and homelessness. But they get up every day and come to work to do their regular jobs, and then some, in very challenging circumstances.

I’ll end by reminding myself and all of you too what I reminded the Times Colonist interviewer – that the goal is not to move people from park to park. The goal is to return parks to spaces for everyone by getting our most vulnerable neighbours inside. That’s why we’re working really hard with Island Health, BC Housing and others every day to make this happen.

I won’t outline the Community Wellness Alliance Decampment Working Group here, a weekly meeting which I chair. You can go to previous Sunday emails here and read more about that process. But I can report that at this past week five more people moved inside, two to Our Place’s Therapeutic Recovery Community in View Royal, and three via Island Health. That’s 15 people moved inside since we began tracking on September 4th. At Friday’s meeting, BC Housing also reported that they now have close to 60 applications from people currently living in supportive housing who can move into Regional Housing First units or private market units later this fall, freeing up space in supportive housing units and shelters for people currently living in parks. And we probably have close to 75% of people who are living outside with housing applications filled out. Work continues in earnest to ensure that the other 25% also get applications in. People want to move inside.

I’ll sign off as always with gratitude for your thoughtful and creative solutions that some of you have sent this past week, along with your queries and your frustration. More than one person has suggested tiny home villages and I’ve passed this along to BC Housing. Someone suggested currently unused agricultural lands on the peninsula could be used for temporary tenting areas. That one we’ll have to leave to those municipalities. Someone else suggested this week that the Bay Street Armoury could potentially be used for a winter shelter. I’ll pass this idea along as well. The reality for the next month or so – until we get a new government in place – is that no new funding announcements will be made, new programs started or new shelters opened, but I’ll keep passing these good ideas along for when we have a new government. And do ask candidates who call you or come to your door what role they will play in addressing the homelessness, mental health and addictions crisis that we are all facing, together.

With gratitude,

Lisa / Mayor Helps

“It may be the end of the world as we know it, but other worlds are possible.” – Anab Jain, Calling for More-Than-Human Politics

BC Urban Mayors’ Caucus
2020 Blueprint for B.C.’s Urban Future


COVID’s Impact on B.C.’s Urban Areas
British Columbia’s urban areas are facing unique challenges in this pandemic, and we want to ensure the next provincial legislature is ready to work in partnership with local governments to address the most pressing issues facing cities across B.C., as we recover from COVID-19.

Our urban communities are the province’s economic engines – home to key industries and their workers, medium- and high-density housing development opportunities, world-class healthcare facilities and post-secondary education institutions. This group of communities is diverse – from the south-western coast to the North, from the Fraser Valley to the Interior – but the vital economic role that each play, and the challenges we each face, are shared.

Our cities are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts, which have exacerbated existing challenges related to mental health and addictions, homelessness, and a lack of affordable housing. With vital support from the provincial and federal governments, cities have maintained critical services, such as public transit, but ongoing financial challenges put the long-term sustainability of these services at risk. In addition, we are in danger of falling behind on planning for infrastructure expansion economic development and climate change, as our respective populations continue to grow and British Columbia moves to rebuild post-pandemic.

Our Shared Proposal
In this election, we are asking all parties to commit to work with leaders in B.C.’s urban centres to address the issues we face today, while we plan for restored prosperity and growth when our communities eventually emerge from the pandemic. Moreover, putting our cities on the path to a strong recovery will support neighboring smaller and rural communities and B.C. as a whole.

This partnership will require ongoing investments in key areas such as housing, health and infrastructure. A strong recovery will also depend on the creation of a new fiscal relationship between provincial and municipal governments in this province – one that provides cities with sustainable, predictable and reliable funding tools, so that we can support inclusive, equitable urban economies well into the future.

2020 Blueprint for B.C.’s Urban Future

  1. Mental Health, Addictions and Treatment

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been an unprecedented escalation in the challenges facing our communities stemming from the mental health and addiction crises. Too many of our residents are affected by mental health and addiction issues and, increasingly, brain injury.

These crises existed before COVID-19 but have been exacerbated by a toxic drug supply, the level of pandemic-related homelessness and encampments, and increasing stigma and anger from some members of our communities. Our businesses – already struggling from the economic impacts of COVID-19 – are facing increased break-ins and other challenges, as a result of increasing social disorder and unpredictable, sometimes violent behaviour from people in crisis.

We call on all parties to commit to:

  1. Immediately expand the availability of the full range of addictions and mental health treatment and recovery options in our communities for both youth and adults, including appropriate facilities for those with complex needs. We need treatment on demand so people get it when they need it. And we need action in months not years.
  2. Make permanent the recent public health order regarding expanding the number of health professionals authorized to prescribe safer pharmaceutical alternatives to the toxic drug supply and urge all relevant regulatory colleges to scale up access to safer pharmaceutical alternatives for people at risk across B.C.
  3. During the Police Act Review, consider alternative approaches for responding to mental health and addictions calls in the community on a 24/7 basis.

2. Affordable Housing
BC Housing and the Province have made significant investments in affordable housing in our communities. Yet many residents still face stress and uncertainty related to housing affordability. Young families can’t afford to buy homes in some communities. Seniors living in market-rental units have pensions that can’t keep pace with rent increases. Low-wage workers are forced to commute long distances to access their jobs in our cities, severely impacting their quality of life. Too many of our vulnerable neighbours are looking for a path out of homelessness. And urban indigenous people are disproportionately represented in the homeless counts.
There is not enough housing in our communities that is affordable to the people who live and work in them. This is also causing economic fallout for businesses in terms of recruitment and retention of workers, reducing the overall productivity of our Province’s economy.

We call on all parties to commit to:

  1. Accelerate investments and simplify the funding application process to build new affordable housing and supportive and social housing on a priority basis.
  2. Ensure there is a regulatory and taxation climate that prioritizes housing for people who live and work in our cities, rather than housing as an investment.
  3. Ensure there is a rental housing system that balances the needs of security of tenure for renters with the needs of landlords.

3. Public Transit
Affordable, reliable and accessible public transit is critical to the future of our communities economically, socially and environmentally. Pre-COVID-19, ridership across the province was growing faster than anywhere in North America, as our residents increasingly turned to transit as a viable alternative to single occupancy vehicles.  
Although the pandemic has cut ridership by over 50 percent, and devastated the financial sustainability of TransLink, BC Transit and BC Ferries, this setback is temporary. For our cities to remain competitive with counterparts in the rest of Canada and the world in a post-pandemic economy, we must keep building transit-friendly communities that continuously invest in high quality transit that reduces road congestion and GHG emissions, keeps our goods moving efficiently on limited road space, and offers an affordable transportation mode to all residents, especially those without other options.

We call on all parties to commit to:

  1. Complete the financial recovery of the projected long-term loses facing TransLink, BC Transit and BC Ferries, once the recently announced Safe Restart operating funding expires in late-2021, so that service levels are maintained throughout the pandemic and the recovery period, and ridership can be quickly rebuilt.
  2. Redesign the transit funding model that has relied too heavily on regressive transit fares and local property taxes to one that is more resilient and equitable.
  3. Prepare for a quick return to the post-pandemic transit expansion our cities will need to maintain competitiveness by ensuring that current planning processes are not paused due to the pandemic. Modest investments in planning studies and business case development now will ensure future service expansion and capital investments are ready to go in the rebuilding stage.
  4. Make the investments required over the coming decade to support BC Transit and TransLink’s ambitious low-carbon fleet plans

4. A New Fiscal Relationship
COVID-19 has made abundantly clear that the fiscal framework set up in 1867 – which sees local governments in Canada reliant primarily on property taxes – is wholly inadequate to meet the challenges and opportunities of cities in the 21st century. As city leaders, we have been on the front lines responding to COVID-19 without the resources to provide the services needed to keep our most vulnerable residents healthy and safe, and at the same time, offer additional supports to the businesses and neighbourhoods most impacted by the pandemic-driven challenges.

Respecting Canada’s constitutional framework where cities are “creatures of the provinces” doesn’t mean we can’t innovate within it. We must, or we put at risk the opportunity of creating inclusive, equitable urban economies, good jobs and sustainable communities.

We call on all parties to commit to:

  1. Convene an implementation committee comprised of local and provincial government officials to revisit and implement relevant recommendations in the Union of B.C. Municipalities report, Strong Fiscal Futures: A Blueprint for Strengthening BC Local Government’s Finance System.
  2. Pursue municipal finance reform to provide municipalities with a broader range of sustainable, predictable and reliable funding tools in order to address increasing financial pressures related to a growing asset base, aging infrastructure, climate change, housing challenges and the opioid crisis.


BC Urban Mayors’ Caucus
The BC Urban Mayors’ Caucus is an informal, non-partisan group of mayors from urban areas across British Columbia.

We have come together in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and learned what we have shared challenges. We will continue to meet as a group to learn from and with each other, and to act as a unified voice on critical issues facing our communities as this pandemic evolves and rebuilding takes hold.

Sheltering in Parks, Provincial Election and Bylaw Enforcement – Mayor’s Sunday EMAIL – September 27 2020

Example of a tiny home, shipping container village, as one of the letter writers suggested this week.

Hello everyone,

Thanks for taking the time to write to me this past week. Because of the high volume of emails we’ve been receiving about people camping in parks, I’ve been reading all of your emails, then responding to all of you at once. I don’t want to repeat myself from previous Sunday emails, because who wants a mayor that sounds like a broken record! I really encourage you to read at least the last few emails (which I’ve turned into blog posts to make more accessible) if you haven’t. It’s a lot to wade through, I know. But I also think it’s important to have information about some of the concerns that have been raised by residents and businesses, my responses, and the work we’re doing. Here are the posts from the last couple of Sundays:

September 21st Post
September 13th Post

These emails are meant to be frank, honest and open-hearted, to reflect back to you what I’ve heard, to answer questions as best as I can, and to share information. I’ll hope you’ll read in this spirit.

Those of you who wrote this week were concerned, as others have been in past weeks, about the use of parks and the importance of parks for kids, about the increased level of unpredictable behaviour you’re witnessing, about how you don’t feel safe.

I think what we’re all starting to realize in Victoria and across the province is that leaving people outside – many of whom have mental health and/or addictions issues and all of whom have likely experienced some form of trauma – is not working for anyone.  Kids need safe places to be and to play, as many of you have so articulately said. Seniors need safe places to walk. Everyone needs a safe place to live. And people who are sick need proper health care.  When no one has any of these things, everyone is hurting, our whole community is hurting. And right now, our whole community is hurting.

And in the middle of all this hurt that is happening here in Victoria and in urban centres across the province, last Monday, a provincial election was called. There are many different feelings about this election call. But it is what it is. And now, we have an opportunity to use this election to ask everyone running to commit to real immediate solutions for mental health, addictions and homelessness, that are developed with people with lived experiences at the centre. We cannot go on like this.

I’ve been meeting over the past few months with mayors from across urban British Columbia, from the north, to the coast to the interior. We’ll be releasing our election calls for action later this week. And there will be a strong focus on immediate solutions to take care of those in our community who are living outside and most vulnerable, not only for their own sake, but for the sake of our entire communities. Please join us.

Write to candidates, attend virtual all candidates sessions, and raise the issue of mental health, addictions and treatment, over and over again. Once the new government is sitting, we need action in Victoria and in communities across British Columbia. And we need action in months not years. I’ll post the urban mayors’ calls to action on my website later this week. Feel free to use that as a starting point for your own conversations.

In the meantime, many of you have also written to us about bylaw enforcement and when the new bylaws that were adopted on September 14th are going to be enforced. These bylaws require 4m of spacing between tents, no more than a 9m square footprint per sheltering site, 8m between shelters and playgrounds and 50m between shelters and schools.

The first step with any bylaw enforcement is to seek voluntary compliance through education and sharing of information. This has been happening for the past few weeks. My expectation is that in the coming weeks that we will begin to see visible changes and compliance among people camping. This does mean that we will likely see people moving to smaller neighbourhood parks where there is currently no one sheltering.

It’s hard to imagine being asked to limit ones belongings and footprint to such a small area, when you think about how big many of our homes, apartments and condos are – much larger than 9×9. But in this situation where people have no choice but to occupy public parks, there does need to be some compromise so that parks can also remain available for other members of the public to use. My hope is that we begin to see compliance, if not we’ll need to take other measures.

Finally, and as always, thanks for your suggestions! Some of you have observed driving through rural British Columbia and noticing lots of open space and lots of buildings for sale and have said that this might be a good place for people who are homeless to live. Some may wish to do so. And the Province may wish to pursue such solutions. As a City Council we are only responsible for the 20 square km handkerchief of land that is Victoria.

Others of you have suggested repurposed shipping containers on empty parking lots. I think this a good idea and have passed it along to BC Housing to pursue. Others have suggested having people living in parkades. This is not something we will be exploring at this point, as we need to balance the needs of Victoria as the commercial centre of the region with the needs of people sheltering outdoors with the needs for local businesses, employees and customers to come into the downtown.

And a number of you have suggested over the past few months just moving everyone to one place in the city – whether it is Royal Athletic Park or the all-weather field at Beacon Hill Park. We know from past experience that large encampments are not safe places for anyone – neither residents of those encampments, or nearby residents. This is evident in the situation we have in Central Park. There are too many people there and it’s putting stress on the people camping and on the neighbourhood. This is – in part – why we changed the bylaws as it will lead to smaller encampments across the city.

All this talk of encampments and responding to questions, concerns and ideas about encampments, sometimes makes even me lose sight of the real goal here. The real goal here is to have no one camping in any park. The goal is to get people inside with the supports and care they need to remain housed successfully. To get treatment as needed. To settle. To heal from trauma. To reconnect with family. That’s the real work. And that work is happening very slowly through the Community Wellness Alliance Decampment Working Group that I’ve highlighted in previous posts and through the hard work of BC Housing, Island Health and many community partners.

Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts with me. I wish I had easy answers. What I can say is that we’re working just as hard as we can on this really important issue so that we can help to heal the hurt in the community that it is causing.

With gratitude,

Lisa / Mayor Helps

Update on Action, Sheltering in Parks, Kids at Play, Mental Health and Addictions, Victoria is not alone – Mayor’s “SUnday” Email – September 21 2020

This video was shown last week at the Coalition to End Homelessness Annual General Meeting. To learn more about Face to Face with Stigma or to request a workshop, you can find them here.

Good afternoon everyone,

Thanks to those of you who have written to share your concerns in the past week and few weeks. I have been writing back to everyone all at once because of the large number of emails I’ve been receiving, but also so I can share some of your points of view and good ideas with each other.

To those of you who have been receiving these Sunday emails on a regular basis for the past few weeks, I’ve been writing you each week to keep you updated. However, I don’t want to assume that you want to keep hearing from me! 😊 So, I’m going to request that if you do want me to continue to write to you, please follow my blog. That way you will get the email automatically when I post it there, but I won’t be flooding your inbox for the next few weeks and months, unless you ask me to.

Also, I’m sorry for not writing to you yesterday as usual; there was a bit of a glitch in compiling all your addresses.

To those of you who have written to me for the first time this past week, thank you. I know this is a really difficult time for our community and it’s good for me to hear directly from you about some of the challenges you’re facing in your own lives and the impacts that homelessness, mental health and addictions are having on all of us. 

My emails to you are meant to be honest, open and heartfelt so I hope they will be received in that spirit. For the past few weeks I’ve been starting by sharing some of what I’ve heard from you in your emails and then sharing some of the challenges we’re facing as a city government, and some of the solutions we’re working on. I thought this week I’d start with solutions and then share some of what I’ve heard from all of you, and answer your questions as best as possible.

Community Wellness Alliance and Coordinated Assessment and Access
As I’ve said in the past three Sunday emails, I co-chair a Community Wellness Alliance (CWA) with Island Health. We’ve formed a Decampment Working Group that meets weekly to move people from outside to inside. Over the next four months there are a substantial number of indoor spaces that will be available, not enough to take care of everyone living outside at this point, but a significant number.

Here’s an update from this past week. (I’ll then share more the CWA and the CAA below for those of you receiving an email from me for the first time.):

  • Since September 4th, 10 people living in encampments have moved inside, including one this past week.
  • As of Friday, 150 people of the approximately 250 people currently living outside have filled in BC Housing applications. Outreach teams will make a concerted effort in the next two weeks to work to have the additional 100 people also fill out housing applications. This is the pathway into housing, motel rooms, indoor sheltering spaces. 
  • As of Friday, 30 people currently living in supportive housing units have filled out applications for a rent supplement for placement in a private market rental unit and 24 people living in supportive housing have filled out an application to live in a Regional Housing First Unit (more below). This means that once these people move (sometime in the coming two months or so), there will be 54 spaces vacated in supportive housing, shelters or motels for people currently living outside to move into. This is called “positive flow.”
  • This Wednesday the Coordinated Assessment and Access Advisory Group will decide whether to prioritize people for housing who have been living in the region for a year or more.

There are 60 units opening in November in Langford and View Royal as part of the Regional Housing First Program (RHFP.) These units rent at $375 per month. There are also 24 units for treatment available at Our Place’s Therapeutic Recovery Community (TRC) in View Royal. These are for men who are ready to access treatment. It is their home and community for up to two years. For the past two weeks TRC outreach staff have been sharing information about their program at some of the encampments. Over the next couple of weeks they will focus their outreach efforts at motel sites, as we know that once people move inside they are more stabilized and more likely to be ready to move into a long-term treatment program. This will then also free up spaces for people living outside to move directly into motels. 

In addition to those 84 spaces (60 at RHFP buildings and 24 at TRC), BC Housing and Island Health are providing some “rent supplements”. This is a top-up provided to the income assistance rate which makes it possible for people to move from supportive housing into market rental units. And then, as with the Regional Housing First units, people can move from parks into the supportive housing units that are vacated. Combined BC Housing and Island Health have provided 110 rent supplements. The rely on private sector landlords renting to people moving out of supportive housing. BC Housing and Island Health are working on a coordinated approach to landlords to secure these units.

This whole “positive flow” process – from supportive housing to RHFP or market unit and then from parks to supportive housing – is coordinated by the BC Housing, Island Health and the CRD. As vacancies become available, the CAA placement table meets and decides who is moving where based on the needs that they have identified in their housing application. 

This is a lot of detail – even more than I provided last week. I don’t know if it helps but many of you have written to me asking us to do something! And I wanted to share with you what we are doing.

Your Suggestions, Questions and Comments
Now to your suggestions, questions and comments. Thank you for these. Many of you have suggested moving people out of the city to other areas of the region with the supports they need to live successfully. One very smart 13 year old who wrote to me suggested that the Red Cross be engaged to help with this. The Red Cross is engaged in providing resources to support the people living in Central Park.

The idea of moving people out of the city with the supports they need is a good one, and some of the people living in the parks have suggested this themselves. But the reality is the City of Victoria does not have this power or ability. There are lots of good areas in the region for setting up work-camp like settings with appropriate supports. As I often say, the city of Victoria proper is a tiny 20sq k/m handkerchief, and right now we are seeing a concentration of people living here with mental health and addictions challenges, as well as just simply being homeless, because there is nowhere else for them to go.

We tried really hard to secure Oak Bay Lodge for seniors experiencing homeless so that seniors currently living in shelters could move to Oak Bay Lodge and others could move inside from the parks, but the CRD Board voted to keep it vacant.

Many of you have also commented that it’s not only housing that people need, but also treatment and you’ve asked the city to provide better treatment options. The City isn’t responsible for health care. But I wholeheartedly agree about the need for more treatment. A provincial election has just been called and myself and mayors from across the province will be working hard to raise this issue with all parties.

Some of you have written and said that the city you used to love is no longer the same city because of all the people with mental health and addictions so visible on our streets. Talking with my colleagues from other urban centres across the province from the north, to the interior, to here on the coast, we are all facing the same thing: unprecedented numbers of people on our streets who should be receiving proper health care to meet their needs. It is a crisis and it’s getting worse not better. Victoria is not an exception. Victoria is not alone. Myself and my colleagues across the province will be actively organizing on this and other issues. I’ll keep you posted here as our election advocacy rolls out. We need immediate action in all of our communities.

Another issue that many of you have raised this past week is asking how could City Council care more about people sheltering in parks than kids needs to play in parks, and similar questions along these lines, like how could we give parks over to people who are homeless instead of keeping parks for tax paying citizens. I can’t speak for the rest of council but I can say that for me, people who are homeless are not more important than kids. And these are really difficult questions to answer. The simple answer, most honest answer is that the reason we are allowing people to be in parks is there is literally nowhere else for people to go. Removing them from parks doesn’t remove them from existence.

There is no good explanation for people having no choice but to live outside in as prosperous a city as Victoria, as prosperous a province as BC, and as prosperous a country as Canada. It is unconscionable. There are many factors that result in the current situation of people living in parks but I won’t go into them now or it might sound like I am lecturing or telling you things you already know about systemic inequality, precarity and vulnerability.

Where can your kids play? Many school properties have playgrounds that are open to the public after school hours and on weekends, so that is one option for people who don’t feel comfortable bringing their kids to play in parks where people are camping. A few of you have written and told me that you are still taking your kids to play in their regular parks and explaining to them while you’re there about the challenges their unhoused neighbours are facing. These are not easy conversations to have and I thank you for having them.

Some of you have asked why people aren’t camping in all neighbourhoods and are most concentrated in Central Park. Others of you have asked when we will be enforcing the bylaws we passed requiring more spacing between tents which will result in less people in any one park and more people in all parks.  As with all new bylaws, there is a period of community engagement and education and we are currently are in that phase. City staff are also developing a strategy to apply these bylaws in a manner where redistribution of tents and the people living in them is done in a thoughtful, compassionate and collaborative manner with both the unhoused and the larger community. In the meantime, in the North Park neighbourhood where Central Park is located, the North Park Community Association is heavily involved with solutions and they are working with City staff and the unhoused community in the park. Everyone is working together to find a way forward.

And some of you have simply said, “I want my park back.” I want this too. More than anything. Because it will mean that we’ve moved people inside. It will mean that they’re no longer in such desperate and vulnerable situations. It will mean that the parks feel more welcoming to everyone again. It will mean that some of the tensions in our community that have been heightened because of pandemic-related homelessness will lessen. I was so surprised to learn that there are people throwing rocks and bottles at tents, it seemed to me for a moment when I heard this story that we’d lost our way. But I know we haven’t. Because all of you are writing to me to share your concerns. To ask questions. To share ideas. To engage in dialogue about this really, really difficult issue. It’s this ongoing dialogue that gives me hope that we will find our way through this. 

With gratitude,
Lisa / Mayor Helps

P.S. To those of you who wrote to me about downtown and Centennial Square, please see my post from Sunday September 13, under the heading Parks Bylaw Changes, Centennial Square and Policing where I address this issue.

“It may be the end of the world as we know it, but other worlds are possible.” – Anab Jain, Calling for More-Than-Human Politics

Camping in Parks Update, Mourning, For Now not Forever – Mayor’s Sunday email – September 13

Two new Regional Housing First buildings opening in Langford and View Royal this fall, with rents starting at $375 per month. This is part of the “positive flow” process that will help move people out of parks and inside to safe, secure affordable housing. More below.

Good morning everyone,

Thanks so much for taking the time to write to me over this past week, and the past few weeks. I’ve read all of your emails and I’ve received a lot! So as I have on previous Sundays, I’m taking the opportunity to write back to all of you together. As I’ve said in earlier emails, what follows is meant to be an honest and open-hearted approach. Just me, Lisa, reflecting and sharing with you on a Sunday morning. No “key messages” or talking points etc. For those of you who haven’t read my emails from the past two weeks, you can find them here.

I so appreciate the thoughtful and constructive tone of so many of the emails I’ve received. Many of you are sharing your stories about the impacts you’re feeling from having people living in our parks – from feelings of fear, to having things stolen from your yards, to seeing the kinds of behaviours that frighten you and/or your children, to the impacts on your businesses. Some of you have shared stories about conversations you’ve had with your unhoused neighbours over the past few weeks and have contacted me to share what some individuals need. Thank you; this allows us to help direct the organizations providing outreach to the right places.

Many of you are also expressing compassion for people who find themselves homeless and living in a park in an unprecedented global health pandemic; you realize the complexity of the situation and that there are no easy solutions. Many of you have also made suggestions such as better access to treatment – noting that some of the people you’ve encountered need more than just housing but support for their mental health and addictions challenges. Or building tiny homes. Or moving people out of town into one large area and providing the supports they need there. All of you have said that there are no good places in the city for people to live outside. Some of you think that the City of Victoria, or me personally has created this situation and should just clean it up. And a few of you thought that the language I used in my email last Sunday was stigmatizing and creating more ill will towards people who are living in our community without homes.

While I may not speak to your individual concerns precisely in this email, I do want to give an update on some of the things that we’re working on. I agree wholeheartedly that there are no good places for people to be living outside in a country as prosperous as Canada. It’s wrong, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s having negative impacts on everyone, housed and unhoused.

Before I get into the steps we’re taking to move people inside over the next four to six months, I want to address another theme that came through in many of your emails. A sense of loss and mourning. And a sense that the situation we find ourselves in is somehow permanent, that this is the new Victoria rather than a moment of crisis.

I share your sense of mourning. I feel terrible that some people feel afraid to use the parks. And I feel terrible that some people have nowhere to live inside and nowhere to go during the day and that they are living in parks. It is a source of grief and heartbreak. The other thing that feels so difficult for me is to watch our community divided over this issue. I know compassion is so very difficult to muster when you’ve had your window smashed, or your golf clubs stolen, or when your kids feel afraid. It’s really hard. And it’s not my place to tell people to be more compassionate. That always backfires and creates a sense of defensiveness. So what I will say, to quote our beloved provincial public health officer Dr. Henry, is that this is for now, it is not forever. We are in a crisis situation, we are still living under a Provincial State of Emergency. We are not “back to normal” whatever that means. People will get housed. People will have their parks back for more recreational uses. The Provincial State of Emergency will be lifted at some point.

This is for now, it’s not forever. The current moment we find ourselves in is not indicative of Victoria’s future; Victoria has a bright future. And one of the reasons I’m a wee bit weary these days is that I’m working so hard to address the crisis of homelessness on our doorsteps and in our parks (with completely inadequate resources), at the same time as working just as hard on the City’s future through the implementation of Victoria 3.0 to make sure that Victorians in the coming decades have a strong inclusive economy, good jobs and a bright future. Here’s a good recent article from Douglas Magazine that shares some of that work. We will get through this. And we’ll come out stronger if, and this is a big if, we can work hard together to change the tone of the conversations we’re having about our beloved city right now, and if we can find a way to have our shared fears, our shared vulnerabilities – housed and unhoused people alike – bring us closer together rather than drive us further apart.

Community Wellness Alliance and Coordinated Assessment and Access
As I’ve said in the past two Sunday emails, I co-chair a Community Wellness Alliance with Island Health. This group existed pre-COVID but has pivoted now to help address the camping in parks issue. We’ve formed a Decampment Working Group that meets weekly to move people from outside to inside. Over the next four months there are a substantial number of indoor spaces that will be available, not enough to take care of everyone living outside at this point, but a significant number.

There are 60 units opening in November in Langford and View Royal as part of the Regional Housing First Program (RHFP.) These units rent at $375 per month. Our thinking is that people currently living in motels, shelters or supportive housing can move into these units and then 60 people can move from outside into the spaces vacated. There are also 24 units for treatment available at Our Place’s Therapeutic Recovery Community in View Royal. These are for men who are ready to access treatment. It is their home and community for up to two years. In addition, BC Housing and Island Health are providing some “rent supplements”. This is a top-up provided to the income assistance rate which makes it possible for people to move from supportive housing into market rental units. And then, as with the Regional Housing First units, people can move from parks into the supportive housing units that are vacated. The announcement about the number of rent supplements available is not mine to make, but I will say that it’s not an insignificant number.

This whole “positive flow” process – from supportive housing to RHFP or market unit and then from parks to supportive housing – is coordinated by the BC Housing, Island Health and the CRD. As vacancies become available, the CAA placement table meets and decides who is moving where based on the needs that they have identified in their housing application. Part of the key work of the Decampment Working Group in the next couple of weeks is ensuring that everyone living outside has a housing application filled out; many currently do and are in line for housing.

The CAA policy group (a separate group from the placement table) sets the priorities on an annual basis for who gets housed. There has been a lot of debate about whether people who are living in our parks are from here or not. While we respect the freedom of movement of people in Canada, Council passed a motion that I brought forward asking the CAA policy group to prioritize housing people who have lived in the region for a year or more. The CAA policy table will make this decision on September 23rd.

I  know this is a lot of detail. But many of you have written to me asking me to do something! And I just wanted to assure you all that we are; the Community Wellness Alliance and the CAA process and all the amazing folks out there on the front lines in the parks, connecting with people and doing outreach, are aiming to move as many of the 275 people who are currently living outside as possible into safe, secure indoor places over the next four months. It is slow, hard work.

Parks Bylaw Changes, Centennial Square and Policing
On Thursday, Council finalized changes to the parks bylaw that will help us to better manage the current situation. The changes include a limit to the amount of space each sheltering area can occupy (3m x 3m), a 4m space between shelters, an 8m requirement between shelters and playgrounds and 50m from shelters to school grounds. The portion of the bylaw that allows daytime camping will expire 30 days after the Province lifts the State of Emergency. The effect of these changes is that it will limit the number of people camping in any one park. This does mean that unless help comes soon from the federal or provincial governments, we will see people moving from some parks (eg Central Park has over 80 tents; the new rules mean there is room for about 20 tents there) to other parks around the city. The Coalition to End Homelessness is working to coordinate outreach and to ensure that there is outreach available to where people will be moving to. Many of you have of said in your emails that moving people around from one park to another does not solve the problem. I agree.

Council also decided this past week to continue to allow camping in Centennial Square. Camping is not currently possible there as staff are remediating the grounds from the encampment that just left. When and if people choose to return there, the new bylaws and spacing requirements will restrict the number of tents to somewhere between 4 and 6.  I respect Council’s decision, but I disagree with it. As I said, moving people from park to park doesn’t make sense. And there are no good outdoor spaces for camping in the city for people who are vulnerable and need to be inside. But I think that Centennial Square and the downtown need to be treated as a special case.

Downtown is the economic engine of the region. Our downtown businesses are already struggling as a result of COVID-19. I think that as a city government we need to do everything in our power to support them right now. Some of the people who work in these businesses are relatively low-wage service workers who may themselves be teetering precariously on the brink of homelessness if they lose their jobs because of a business closure, and can’t pay their rent. I realize that advocating for no camping downtown puts pressure on neighbourhood parks. But as mayor I need think about all angles and considerations. The economic health of our downtown benefits all of us. Businesses pay more than three times the amount of taxes as residential property owners do; these business taxes help pay for the amenities and quality of life that we all enjoy as Victorians. Council did decide to ask staff to come back in a month’s time with some sort of analysis on the impacts of not allowing camping in the downtown. So that conversation will continue.

Council also decided on Thursday to allocate close to an additional $100,000 for policing for the remainder of 2020 to help ensure safety and security around the areas where people are camping. Police aren’t the answer to solving or even managing homelessness. But between approving funding for the Coalition to End Homelessness to work with people in encampments, to changes to the parks bylaws, to additional policing, we are taking as comprehensive and systemic an approach possible to manage what is a very difficult situation for everyone.

The Federal Government
Last week I asked people to write to the federal government to request that they support the Province to acquire more housing for people who are currently living outside. I hope that many of you did. One resident shared their email with me, and I wanted to say thanks and to share this email with all of you for inspiration in case you also wish to write.

Subject: Homeless crisis solution for Victoria requires federal support asap.
To: adam.vaughan@parl.gc.ca <adam.vaughan@parl.gc.ca>, ahmed.hussen@parl.gc.ca <ahmed.hussen@parl.gc.ca>, laurel.collins@parl.gc.ca <laurel.collins@parl.gc.ca>

Dear MPs: I write regarding the ongoing social and health crisis here in Victoria due to a severe lack of supportive housing for several hundred homeless citizens currently encamped in parks throughout the city. As you may be aware, both the civic administration and the provincial government have deployed millions of dollars to acquire and repurpose hotel and motel facilities in the city  but have still fallen short of the target, leaving approximately 254 homeless without any option other than continued tenting in public parks, where criminal activities and vandalism have provoked a serious backlash from residents and business owners. 

With a concurrent opioid crisis, mental health crisis and the likelihood of a second wave of Covid19 this fall, it is absolutely vital that this problem be solved asap. But it is clear this will not happen unless the federal government agrees to join the battle and shoulder its share of the load. I needn’t remind you that Ottawa created a $46billion fund in 2018 to support affordable housing projects across the country, but to date has approved less than one percent, or $7.3 million for two projects in BC while Ontario has received $1.39 billion for 12 projects. Surely it is obvious that Victoria’s problem, while significant, could be resolved for far less than that, especially when the province’s contribution is added. I urge you to consider this issue and press the government to respond soon. I look forward to your response. 

Regards,

There are some glimmers of hope coming out of Ottawa in terms of a substantial housing acquisition fund. We’ll keep working with our colleagues at the federal government to ensure that once this fund is announced that the money gets out as quickly as possible.

I know this has been a lot of information to share all at once. I’ve been sitting here typing for the last hour and a half and it’s probably time to get up, refill my coffee and then tackle all of the other non-homelessness related “action items” coming out of various meetings this past week.

With gratitude for you taking the time to read this email and for your ongoing shared love of our city and our community.

Lisa / Mayor Helps

“It may be the end of the world as we know it, but other worlds are possible.” –  Anab Jain, Calling for a More-Than-Human-Politics 

Sheltering in parks, Kids at Play, State of Emergency and Confronting Reality – Mayor’s Sunday Email – Sept 6 and August 30

Good morning everyone,

For the past many months I’ve been spending my Sunday mornings responding one at a time to emails I receive from residents during the week. Because I’m receiving many emails on the same topic with shared concerns and a variety of perspectives, I’ve decided to write back to all of you at once. I’ve read all of your emails and hopefully you will see some of your concerns reflected and responded to here.

This email is long, but I do encourage you to read all the way through! It’s also going to be human and honest, not bureaucratic or communications-speak. This is a really difficult situation we’re in right now, all of us, and it’s going to take our shared humanity and a great deal of honesty, as well as courage to get through it. It’s also going to require ongoing open-hearted conversations.

So as not to repeat myself from August 30th, but to be sure that everyone has as much information as possible, I’ve pasted the email from last week at the bottom. Also, if reading long emails is not your thing, I do a weekly Facebook Live on Friday afternoons. This week’s video is here and above. If you’re only interested in discussions of sheltering in parks, you can skip to 4:15. If you want comprehensive information, please watch the video AND read this email.

First I’d like to say that I so appreciate all of you taking the time to write. I’m heartened that most of the emails are thoughtful and respectful, with good questions, concerns and suggestions. It’s only through thoughtful dialogue that we are going to find our way through this. I thought about excluding those from this response who were swearing or yelling eg. ALL CAPS with LOTS OF EXCLAMATION MARKS!!! 🙂 in their emails, but my job is to be as open as possible with everyone, regardless of what kind of response I might get back.

The thing that is heartbreaking for me, which many of your emails point to, is the tension between two really important things. One the one hand, we need safe spaces for kids (and of course adults too, but many of the emails this week focused on kids) to play and recreate. This is so important for all sorts of reasons from a sense of connection to their place and their neighbourhood, to the obvious benefits of outdoor activity and exercise, to the special need for outdoor play during the pandemic where transmission of infection is much lower. On the other hand, there is the need for people who have nowhere else to go to take shelter. And so the City’s parks have become somewhat of a battle ground between these two important social and human needs.

Many of you have written really heartfelt emails – from neighbourhoods all across the city – about why the park in your neighbourhood isn’t a good place to camp. It’s got a playground, a sports field, it’s close to a residential area. The city has a terrific parks system with great parks in every neighbourhood. None of them are good places for people to be sheltering outdoors. 

But we have a humanitarian crisis on our hands. Some of you have said that you are concerned that people are coming here from elsewhere because Victoria is taking two light of an approach with respect to homelessness. There likely are people who have come here from across the country, there’s no denying that and it tends to happen every summer, anecdotally anyway. 

But the bigger reason we’re seeing an increase of people in our parks is because of COVID. In March, all the shelters in the city had to cut their numbers by almost half because of physical distancing. Not one of them have increased back to their regular numbers since then. Additionally, when we were all told to get into our bubbles and stay there, anyone precariously housed (couch surfing, or staying with relatives, etc) was sent outside. The Province worked very hard and moved about 500 people indoors in April and May. Yet still about 275 people remain outside.

And in terms of during the day and where people will go, pre-COVID, Our Place on Pandora could accommodate hundreds of people indoors, for meals and programming, etc. Now they can have a maximum of 40 people inside. So both at night and during the day, there is literally nowhere for people to go. This is the case across the country. Victoria is not unique (I said this last Sunday too! Sorry for the repeat but it feels really important.) In Toronto, for example, the policy is to allow people to shelter in parks until indoor solutions can be found. Once people are offered indoor alternatives, then the camps are cleared. 

So what are we going to do? The first thing we have to do, as a community is to confront reality. I’ll explain what I mean by this in a moment. The second thing we need to do is to manage the situation better. Council made some decisions this week that will help us to do that. Third, we need earnest advocacy to the federal government to help us (some of you suggested this in your emails, thank you, I’ll put some addresses below). Fourth, we need immediate creative solutions and hard work. Fifth, we need to try to put each ourselves in each other’s shoes.

First – Confront Reality 
When I was the Executive Director of Community Micro Lending, we had a mentor come in and meet with the entrepreneurs on a regular basis as a group. The mentors were successful business people. One evening, one of the mentors shared his story when he was talking about how to build trust with customers. He was running a tech company in Vancouver and had a very big project to deliver to a client in Seattle. Like really big – millions of dollars. And he ran into a snag. His employees came into his office and said that the project was behind, they didn’t know when they were going to be able to get it back on track, there were massive issues with it.

So he immediately got into his car, drove to Seattle and met in person with the CEO of the company he was supposed to deliver the product to. The CEO of course was surprised to see him, but invited him into his office. He sat down and said, “We are going to be late on the project. I can’t tell you how late or when we’ll be able to deliver it. But I needed to come here in person to be totally honest and to confront this reality with you.” The CEO appreciated his honestly and forthrightness. The project was eventually delivered and because of that one interaction, the sheer honesty of the company owner and his ability to confront reality, he got many more contracts in the future with the Seattle company, even though he had really screwed that big one up. 

We have to confront reality as a community. I can’t tell you when the issue of camping in parks is going to be resolved because there is no easy resolution. We’re going to need to continue to live in this difficult situation, to find our way through until help comes, because the City can’t solve the problem alone. There were some glimmers of hope this week from the Premier but we don’t know when the situation we’re in will end and when people will get the housing and supports that many of them need and want. The no camping during the day will be enforced again when the Provincial State of Emergency ends, but we don’t know when this will be. 

Second – Manage the Situation Better
Here is a staff report that was presented to and adopted by Council last Thursday. It is meant to address some of the issues that you’ve been writing to us about. There will be a 10ft x 10ft site for each person sheltering and a buffer of 4m between tents and between tents and sports courts and playgrounds. And a 50m buffer between encampments and schools. This means, for example that in Central Park where there are currently over 70 tents, there will be room for 21 tents. Each park will essentially have a limit to the number of tents based on these spacing guidelines. We will also be hiring 5 additional bylaw officers to help address the issues in parks. Council also gave some funding to the Coalition to End Homelessness to do some work with people living in parks so that they can help to better manage the situation themselves. This might seem to some of you like a strange thing to do, but what we’ve heard through staff and other advocacy groups and from some of the people living outdoors themselves is that they want to be good neighbours and that sometimes it’s just a few people who make it difficult for others. The people living in parks want some agency in determining their own living circumstances so that they can help address the issues. 

Third – Advocate to the Federal Government          
During the pandemic the Provincial government has spent tens of millions of dollars in our region attempting to address pandemic-related homelessness. The federal government has committed $1.3 million to address homelessness during the pandemic. Just like the City, the Provincial government needs help. 

It would be great if people could write to the Minister Families, Children and Social Development, Ahmed Hussen (Ahmed.Hussen@parl.gc.ca) and his Parliamentary Secretary Adam Vaughan (Adam.Vaughan@parl.gc.ca) and talk about the need for federal support to address pandemic-related homelessness in Victoria and across the country. Please stress the urgency of the situation and share some of the stories that you’ve shared with me, with them. 

Fourth – Immediate Creative Solutions and Hard Work
While it’s true that the City didn’t create homeless and can’t end it, we have a role to play. We’ve created the Community Wellness Alliance that I co-chair with Island Health. This group includes Island Health, BC Housing, the Coalition to End Homelessness, the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness as well as city staff in bylaw and the mayor and city manager’s office and representatives from various provincial ministries. We’ve formed a Decampment Working Group and we’ve identified a significant number of indoor spaces that will be available over the next six months. The Decampment Working Group, which I chair is meeting weekly, vacancy by vacancy, person by person, to work on getting people matched with appropriate housing and corresponding supports. There’s a committed and hard working group of people at that table. But it’s very slow work. The good news from the past week is that we moved seven people from outdoors to indoors. 

During my Community Drop In this past week, one resident asked what she could to. I shared this in the chat as it had been recently sent to me by another Victoria resident – it’s called the Block Project and it’s a good idea that residents in Seattle have implemented.  I’m sharing this in case it’s of interest of anyone to follow up with the folks in Seattle. 

Fifth – Put Ourselves in Each Other’s Shoes
One set of shoes: What would it be like to be a young family, or a senior citizen who relies on neighbourhood parks for recreation, exercise well-being, who now feels that their park has been taken away, it feels unsafe. There are strangers living there who they don’t know and who they feel scared of. You feel vulnerable.

The other set of shoes: What would it be like to be living in a neighbourhood park. You don’t have anywhere else to go. You are truly homeless. You’re scared that winter is coming and you’ll still be outside. You don’t have anywhere safe to be, ever, because you have no home to retreat to. You feel vulnerable. 

Thank you for taking the time to wade through this very long email and for your open-hearted generosity as we continue to find our way through this very challenging situation, together.

Lisa / Mayor Helps

Email from Sunday August 30 2020 

Good morning everyone,

I usually spend my Sunday mornings responding one at a time to emails I receive from residents during the week. I did this last Sunday and only made it through a fraction of the emails that had come in over the past few weeks. So this weekend, because many of you have written on similar topics, and so I can be sure to respond in more of a timely way, I thought I’d reply to you all at once. I’ve read all your emails and will make sure that there’s enough information in here to address the concerns you’ve raised. 

This email may be a bit lengthy, but I do encourage you to read all the way through! It’s also going to be human and honest, not bureaucratic or communications-speak. This is a really difficult situation we’re in right now, all of us, and it’s going to take our shared humanity and a great deal of honesty, as well as courage to get through it. It’s also going to require ongoing open-hearted conversations.

I accept responsibility for allowing people to camp in Beacon Hill Park and in parks across the city. We did so based on the guidance of Dr. Henry who sent guidelines to mayors across the Province in June 8th. In case you haven’t seen these, I’m attaching them for you here. 

I acknowledge that this is a really difficult situation for everyone. I know this from the experiences you have shared with me as residents living near parks, or who have kids going to schools near parks where people are camping, or as people who work downtown, or have kids who work downtown. I also know it’s difficult for people living in parks – they have become the objects of frustration, hatred in some cases, anger and derision. A large majority of people living in the parks have filled out housing applications and are on BC Housing’s waitlist; they want to move inside. And it’s not easy for our staff working in the parks – they love their work, they take pride in maintaining the parks for public use and enjoyment; the current situation and all the tension is really hard for them. And it’s not easy for me either, I feel despair that we can’t do more to fix the situation, we can only manage the crisis that has landed on our doorsteps as the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

I also acknowledge that there are no easy answers. At this point there is nowhere to move people to, there are no more indoor or outdoor spaces I can think of to try as temporary indoor solutions after Oak Bay Lodge, UVIC, CFB Esquimalt, and Ogden Point, all of which are unavailable for various reasons. Victoria is not alone. I was talking to a colleague in the City of Toronto recently – there are eight encampments in his riding alone. I also met with the head of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness last week; he tells me there are encampments in cities all across the country. 

So what are we going to do? It’s not working having people living outside in the downtown core. This is putting tremendous pressure on our small businesses many of which are already struggling to survive through the pandemic. In addition, due to the reports released by the police late last week on the concentration of drug trafficking at that encampment and the violence that went along with that trafficking, our Director of Parks has used his authority under the parks bylaw to temporarily close a section of a park, in this case, the areas where people are currently camped. This is effective as of Tuesday September 1st

It’s also not working to have people camping close to schools (South Park as well as the Montessori in Selkirk) or near playgrounds. Children are our collective future. They are also vulnerable residents who need safe places to be and especially safe places to be given the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of being outside. 

Our staff have been looking into what other cities are doing to manage pandemic-related homelessness and they will be bringing a report to Council for our meeting this Thursday that has some new approaches to managing encampments for the duration of the Provincial State of Emergency. This likely includes things like wider buffer zones between tents and playing fields and playgrounds, more space between tents – which will have the effect of limiting the number of tents in a given park, and a prohibition on camping near schools. You can read the report here when it is published – which should be sometime on Monday afternoon. From what I understand, staff will be recommending that these changes are in place as long as the Provincial State of Emergency is in place and that 30 days after the Province lifts the State of Emergency, the regular bylaw will come back into effect, which allows people to shelter overnight from 7pm – 7am. 

I know some of you would like to see an immediate end to tents set up in parks during the day. As I see it, as this point, that’s not practical. Here’s why I think that: Enforcing the 7 to 7 bylaw, would mean that every day, 250 people or so would need to pack up all their things and leave the parks. Where would they go? Our Place still has limited capacity and so does the library – two places where people experiencing homelessness are welcomed. And what if it rains and everything they have gets wet? How do you fall asleep that night on a soggy wet blanket? 

We are in the middle of a global health pandemic and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Great Depression lately, and what our city looked like then. The “symbols”, if we can call it that, of the Great Depression were people in bread lines and living in “hobo jungles” and riding the rails looking for work. As a result of the Depression, the Canadian welfare state was built to ensure that there was a safety net created for those who fell through the cracks at that time. The “symbol” of this economic crisis is people with mental health and addictions challenges, living in parks. They have fallen through the cracks. All we can hope and continue to advocate for, is that a new safety net will be created. 

As many of you have said in your thoughtful emails to me, this isn’t primarily about homelessness. We need to distinguish between those that need housing and those that need structured therapeutic help for mental health and addiction issues. There are currently no treatment beds in the city for those with addictions issues. See the front page story in Times Colonist.  Addressing this dire situation requires provincial leadership and courage across the board. 

But in the meantime, as mayor, I’m doing the small part that I can on this complex issue. We’ve created the Community Wellness Alliance that I co-chair with Island Health. This group includes Island Health, BC Housing, the Coalition to End Homelessness, the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness as well as city staff in bylaw and the mayor and city manager’s office and representatives from various provincial ministries. We’ve formed a Decampment Working Group and we’ve identified a number of indoor spaces that may be available over the next six months, starting with a few that are available immediately including 24 new spaces at the Therapeutic Recovery Community in View Royal. The Decampment Working Group, which I chair is meeting weekly, vacancy by vacancy, person by person, to work on getting people matched with appropriate housing and corresponding supports. There’s a committed and hard working group of people at that table. But it’s very slow work. 

At the risk of over-sharing, or getting too personal, I did want to leave you with a book that I’ve been reading and re-reading throughout the uncertain times that the pandemic has brought. And in particular I’d like to share a passage that I’ve been reading before bed every single night for months now. If this is of use or help to you, that’s wonderful. If not, that’s okay too! If any of you have similar resources to share, please write me to let me know.

The book is by Pema Chodron and it’s called, Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion. This passage is from teaching #40 “Thinking Bigger” and it’s helping me to remain soft:

“It’s easy to continue, even after years of practice, to harden into a position of anger and indignation. However, if we can contact the vulnerability and rawness of resentment or rage or whatever it is, a bigger perspective can emerge. In the moment we choose to abide with the energy instead of acting it out or repressing it, we are training in equanimity, in thinking bigger than right and wrong. This is how all the four limitless qualities – love, compassion, joy, and equanimity – evolve from limited to limitless: we practice catching our mind hardening into fixed views and do our best to soften. Through softening, the barriers come down.”

With gratitude for you taking the time to read this email and for your ongoing shared love of our city and our community.

Lisa / Mayor Helps

“It may be the end of the world as we know it, but other worlds are possible.” – Anab Jain, Calling for More-Than-Human Politics

Province Secures Safe Shelter, Supports for People Living in Topaz and Pandora Encampments

Press availability, media Q and A. Saturday April 25th.

I’d like to thank the Province for their announcement today and for working in partnership with the City to meet the needs of the most vulnerable people in our communities. In particular, it was was terrific to hear the approach taken by Ministers Farnworth, Simpson and Darcy this morning.

Minster Farnworth said, “We cannot leave our most vulnerable behind.” Minister Simpson said directly to the people living in the encampments, “We will do this with care and compassion, you will not be abandoned.” And Minister Darcy talked about the stigma associated with addiction and emphasized that the government is taking this action to keep people safe with the two public health emergencies that currently exist.

To these ministers, to the entire cabinet committee and to the Premier who brought them together, on behalf of myself and Council and all the residents of Victoria – housed and unhoused – I want to say thank you for using your powers under the Emergency Program Act and your resources to address this critical situation. I also want to say thank you to all of the City of Victoria staff who have been working hard with this Province this past week and who will continue their work in the weeks to come.

Between Topaz Park and Pandora Ave there are 360 people living outside. Today the Province committed to ensuring that each of these people are housed indoors. Minister Simpson also said, “We have no intention of putting these people back on the street when this pandemic is over.” I am grateful to the Province for their commitment to providing long-term housing.

We know there is still more work to do, there are more people who will need housing and supports in the weeks and months to come, and we will continue to work with the Province to help ensure that everyone’s needs can be met. The reason the Province is starting with Topaz Park and Pandora Ave is because – as we are all aware – there have been significant challenges to mitigating the health risks in these dense encampments.

In response to today’s order from Minister Farnworth that these sites be evacuated by May 9th, BC Housing is leading a plan to coordinate a move for those living on Pandora Avenue and in Topaz Park into more secure temporary housing, primarily in motel rooms. This fits with what Council has asked the Province to do and what is recommended by Island Health.

This important action will provide secure housing, enable appropriate physical distancing measures and improve access to hygiene facilities, healthcare and social supports. BC Housing is building on the work that has already begun. They are now rapidly deploying outreach workers, and frontline staff to work with the people living at the camps and as well as with onsite social service providers to implement a plan for both of these sites.

I want thank all the frontline workers who are working at these temporary sites while we’ve been waiting for sheltering indoor options and who will continue to work hard as people move indoors. It will take weeks to move everyone off of Pandora Avenue and out of Topaz Park, but the work is already underway. It’s going to take everyone working together to get our most vulnerable residents into indoor living situations with the help and support they need.

BC Housing has successfully moved people and closed encampments many times over in recent years and they will be applying that experience to ensure that the decampment of these two locations is done in a way that meets the needs of residents currently living there.

Working together with the Province we can create a community where everyone feels safe, where everyone’s needs are met, and where everybody can live well and can live well together.

 

Ambrose Place: Love and Decolonizing Housing, Health and Wellness

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I had an incredible experience earlier this week that I’m really excited to share. I was in a situation where I was expecting one thing and something completely different happened. In the space between expectation and experience, there was inspiration, love and great deal of learning.

I was invited by Fran Hunt-Jinnochi, Executive Director of the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness, to tour Ambrose Place in Edmonton. She invited a dozen of us from Vancouver Island to join her to learn about the Indigenous-informed, culturally supportive housing site which includes a managed alcohol program. She wants to start a similar program on Vancouver Island, hopefully in the capital region, and she invited us to learn and to witness.

I was expecting a conventional facility tour and a series of PowerPoint presentations with governance models and funding charts. Instead, we began on Monday evening in circle with a local elder. He shared his songs with us and spoke for three hours about the importance of connection to one’s own spirit. “Human and spirit,” he said over again in many different ways as the sage burned and the day faded to night.

Tuesday, we learned about love and how a decolonizing approach to “harm reduction” works. Carola Cunningham, the CEO and founder of Ambrose Place said about the residents, “We just keep loving them. We’re all related.” Her staff who were there to share their experiences, echoed this. A staff member shared a story of a resident who told her that he was almost 50 years old and no one had ever told him they loved him. So now every day, at the end of their one-on-one meeting she says, “I love you.”

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Another staff member recounted her experience working at a hospital before coming to Ambrose Place. “The thing I love about working here is that we love our residents. When I worked at the hospital you weren’t allowed to love your patients. Here we are allowed to love them.” Another staff member told us that when she started working at Ambrose Place she had to get used to residents hugging her.

This tenderness, this Indigenous-centred, love-based approach continues through to end-of-life care. Ambrose Place was not originally set up for palliative care. Early on, one of the residents very close to death had gone to the hospital. He wanted to come home to die but they weren’t prepared. After he passed, Carola was determined that people should be able to die at home. And – just like much else that happens at Ambrose place – Carola made it so. “Now we do palliative care,” she said. “And we love people through to the spirit world.”

“In the regular system, at the hospital,” one of the staff members said, “when there’s a death and you cry, you’re seen as weak. Here we’re told, ‘Cry, let it out, tears are medicine.’ We accept our residents where they’re at. As staff we’re also accepted where we’re at.”

The longer people stay at Ambrose place, the more opportunity they have for sobriety, the closer their trauma comes to the surface. The residents work through their trauma in ceremony, in circle, and with an “Elders Review” – a practice where they walk through their lives chronologically with an elder and decide which parts they are ready to work on. What’s truly moving is that the trauma work doesn’t stop with the residents. Carola has created a social enterprise catering service and she uses the money to reinvest in trauma support for her staff.

Ambrose Place is remarkable. And it’s working. As it turns out, love and a decolonizing approach are saving the Alberta government a lot of money. In the first two years they were open, they saved $7 million in health care costs. Their residents have reduced their hospital days by about 90%. There has been a significant decrease in mental health and addictions emergency room visits. And this takes only health care into consideration. There’s currently a study underway to quantify the savings in policing and the justice system.

Niginan Housing Ventures, which runs Ambrose Place, has big plans for what’s next. Ninety-three percent of kids in care in Alberta are Indigenous. So Niginan is going to create a building for kids and parents together. Instead of removing the kids from their parents, they’ll remove the parents – but only to another part of the building. They’ll have “kookums” (grandmothers) and elders around to care for and love the children as well. By keeping everyone under one roof, they’ll ensure that the kids stay connected to their parents until the parents are ready to move back into a suite with their children.

A disproportionate number of people experiencing homelessness in Victoria are Indigenous. A disproportionate number of Indigenous children are in care in this country. Conventional approaches are not working to address these issues and are likely just making them worse. My key takeaway ­– and my reflection to the group in our closing circle – is that the decolonizing practices and loving ways of Ambrose Place have the power to transform the whole health and housing system, if only we are open to new ways of knowing.

 

Comprehensive Approach Needed to Public Safety, Mental Health, and Addictions

There are people living on the streets of Victoria who struggle with mental health and addictions. I’ve learned that these conditions are often a result of childhood trauma or brain injuries. Although we don’t have verifiable data, there seems to be an increasing number of people in this situation. Their challenges are highly visible and can show up unexpectedly. This can leave some members of the public feeling threatened which isn’t good for anyone – not for those seen as threatening or those feeling threatened.

Addressing homelessness, mental health, and addictions present complex challenges for everyone. This situation isn’t good for the people on the streets who need medical care and attention; if they had a broken arm they would be receiving treatment in a hospital. It isn’t good for other local residents. It isn’t good for business owners. And it’s putting a real strain on frontline workers and on our police officers.

Over the last four years, I’ve frequently spoken with people living on the streets, with residents of affected neighbourhoods, business owners, service providers, and police officers. I’ve listened to many perspectives.

When people struggling with mental health or addictions want to change their life – when they want to get off the street – there is almost nowhere for them to go. They can join a long waitlist for housing or enroll in 30-day treatment with no guarantee of stability or support afterward. Some end up in prison, but when they are released, they are released back onto the street. Some go to hospitals but, again, they are released right back onto the streets. It’s a cycle that’s very hard to break.

Some people in Victoria walk down Pandora or Johnson Streets on a regular basis or take their kids to the Victoria Conservatory of Music, and they feel nervous. It’s not because they think anyone is fundamentally bad but because the situation seems so dire. And also the behaviour they see is unfamiliar to them. They want to feel safe and they want their kids to feel safe.

Our local business community also has a great deal of compassion for people living on our streets; I hear this all the time. Many donate to community organizations. Some let people sleep in their doorways or outside their shops. But it’s also hard to run a business when there are needles, feces and other things that often need to be cleaned up in the mornings. Female staff sometimes don’t feel safe leaving work late at night. Business owners are really frustrated.

Frontline workers are out there working as hard as they can to address all the issues. They’ve witnessed way too many overdoses and deaths. Each time they administer Naloxone they save a life. But there seems like no end in sight to the problem and they are feeling really burnt out.

Our Vic PD officers are out on the streets 24-7. They know most of the people on the streets by name. The police are doing everything they can to help, which sometimes includes preventing a suicide or administering Naloxone. Some of the officers are part of the ACT Teams that work with health care professionals and others to try to help. They’re under-resourced most of the time, responding call to call with many stacked calls waiting. They need more officers and their members are feeling the stress and burnout of working in this really difficult situation.

This situation on our streets clearly isn’t good for anyone. The status quo is unsupportable, unaffordable, and ineffective. If the solutions were easy, the problem would be solved by now. Thankfully there are solutions underway and a more comprehensive approach to come.

Here’s what’s already underway:

  • The opening of the Therapeutic Recovery Centre in View Royal this fall will provide treatment and recovery to a cohort of 50 of the region’s most vulnerable residents. They’ll stay there for 18-24 months and work through the root causes of their addictions. When they come out they will have housing and employment and be on a strong recovery pathway. We know this model works because it has been operating for 40 years at San Patrignano in Italy. BC Housing recently purchased Woodwynn Farms in Central Saanich and plans to run a similar program there, with housing provided offsite.
  • Thanks to the leadership of Inspector Scott McGregor at VicPD, BC Housing, Pacifica, Island Health, and City Bylaw teamed up to create the Housing Action Response Team (HART). Based on a successful model from Seattle this team works with the most vulnerable people camped in public spaces to assist them in getting the help and shelter they need. In the first six months of HART over 20 people have been housed and received the supports they need to move towards recovery.
  • Starting in 2015 and reinvigorated this spring, I’ve lead the Pandora Task Force to address the situation on the 900-block of Pandora. Meeting monthly at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, I’ve facilitated a group of residents, business owners, service providers, city staff, the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network and VicPD. We will be bringing forward proposals based on best practices from elsewhere as part of the 2019 budgeting process to make the 900-block of Pandora safe and welcoming for all.
  • In 2018, the Victoria-Esquimalt Police Board requested six additional officers. I along with four of my colleagues at Victoria Council supported the addition of these officers – the first new officers proposed to be added since 2010. Esquimalt Council did not support the addition of the officers as they did not feel it fit the policing framework agreement between our two communities. The matter has been handed to the Province to make a ruling. We must resolve this issue because while new police officers on the street can’t solve any of the problems above on their own, they are part of the solution.

But what’s really needed is a comprehensive overhaul of the way mental health and addictions resources are spent in the Capital Region. Working together as a region in the past four years we’ve done this with housing. We have the Regional Affordability Strategy, the $90-million Regional Housing First Program, and a Community Plan created by the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness. We know how the money needs to be spent to most effectively to address chronic homelessness. And our approach here in the region has been recognized provincially and nationally. We must take the same comprehensive approach with mental health and addictions.

In the next term, working in partnership with the Province, we will ensure that money spent on addressing mental health and addictions in our region gets people the supports and services they need—at whatever stage or phase of their mental health or addiction—from prevention to recovery.

We’ll begin by co-convening a Regional Mayor’s Task Force on Mental Health and Addictions with one mayor from the Core, one mayor from the Westshore and one mayor from the Peninsula. It’s not only in the City of Victoria that people need access to treatment. That teenager in Colwood or the injured worker addicted to opioids on the Peninsula need help in their home communities before they end up on Pandora Avenue.

The task force will be co-chaired by the three mayors and comprised of staff from Island Health, staff from the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, service providers, members of the business community, police, bylaw, and people with lived experience of mental health and addictions. The scope of work for the task force will be to quantify the problem and the cost regionally and to develop a business case for solving it.

We will implement a new approach to mental health and addictions prevention and treatment in the region and regularly evaluate and share results, and continuously improve the approach based on feedback.

This will be good for the people living on the street who can’t get the help they need and it will be good for the people who will never have to end up on the street. It will take some of the pressure off frontline workers and police, and it will ensure that our streets are welcoming, inclusive places for everyone.