I continue to receive lots of emails on sheltering related issues and I want to make sure everyone gets a response and has information, so I’m answering you all at once! I hope you’ll take the time to read and share with others too. These emails tend to be long, but it’s because I want to address the key issues that we’re hearing about. If you’d like to stay up to date and receive emails from me on a weekly basis you can sign up for my blog here.
I have to admit that when I read through the 94 emails I received this week on this topic, I felt a bit depressed. You would too if you saw my inbox. Many of you wrote saying how terrible Council and I are for not supporting people who are living without homes, for cutting off all the water in Meegan/Beacon Hill Park (this didn’t happen), for violating human rights, for asking that the Community Care Tent be completely dismantled (this didn’t happen), for not supporting community efforts to support the homeless. There were also a few really angry emails from people that had received a small portion of the email I sent last weekend, taken out of context and turned into a picture (presumably shared on social media) that took me to task for saying that providing housing perpetuates addiction. I didn’t say this.
And then, there is another whole series of angry emails from people asking me how we could continue to let people shelter in parks, how we would dare provide hygiene services or bus tickets to access them with their tax dollars, why we couldn’t immediately dismantle the Community Care Tent, how could we let the city, the downtown go like we have. And so on.
Although there were a few people who wrote with curiosity and a spirit of generosity, the common tone from both so-called sides was anger. I get it. We’re in the middle of a global health pandemic with no end in sight. You’re tired of the uncertainty. You just want things to go back to normal. You don’t want to have to work so hard to have people’s basic needs met. You want to be able to walk in the park and not worry, or feel heartbreak for those who are sleeping outside. You wish your mayor and your city council could fix everything that’s broken.
I wish this too. But we can’t. The challenges are too big, too complex. They’re systemic. Leilani Farha who works with The Shift on the right to housing said the other day that she couldn’t name one major city in Canada that doesn’t have encampments.
But what we can do – and what we are doing, every day – is to continue to work to get people into safe, secure affordable housing with the supports they need. We can continue to convene BC Housing, Island Health, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness, provincial staff and many others to do this. We can set bold goals, like the one Council adopted this week – to get everyone currently sheltering in parks into housing, or shelters on the pathway to housing by March 31st 2021 and once that happens, to end 24/7 camping in parks.
And perhaps most importantly, we can share information.
Showers and Water at Meegan*/Beacon Hill Park
Last weekend a group of residents wanting to help out fellow residents installed showers in Beacon Hill Park. These showers were built by experienced carpenters and they looked really great. But they were also proposed to be heated with propane and hadn’t been certified or inspected. If the showers were hooked up to water and used and there was an explosion of some sort, someone who was showering could get really hurt. This wasn’t a chance that city staff wanted to take. Also the showers could put the city in violation of the Beacon Hill Trust (see last week’s blog post for more information). City staff turned off the water at the one tap at the gravel field. All the other water sources and washrooms in the park remain open and on 24 hours a day seven days a week as they have been since people have been sheltering in the park during the pandemic.
I wish I’d had time to write back to all of you during the week, one at a time. This would probably have helped with the spread of misinformation. I’m member of the national Right to Home working group and am working closely with Leilani Farha who wrote the UN Protocol for Encampments that some of you sent to me this week. But more than my membership in any national working group, I had hoped that our approach to sheltering during COVID-19 – not displacing people and doing our very best to provide the hygiene support necessary – would speak for itself.
The showers were removed earlier in the week by the people who put them there.
Last week the City got funding to keep showers open at Our Place seven days a week from 8am to 9pm; there are now 13 hours every day where people can access showers. To help those who need to get there Council is funding bus tickets. See my blog post from last week for more details. There are still gaps. I will say more about this below.
Community Care Tent
As noted in my blog post last Sunday, Council values the services provided by the Community Care Tent. It’s just that the tent violates the Beacon Hill Trust. As I also said last week, the consequences of the City being found in violation of the Trust are severe and would likely be detrimental to people who are currently sheltering in the park. This is a very real threat as the Friends of Beacon Hill have vowed to sue the City to end sheltering in the park.
All Council asked was that the tent be moved to a spot adjacent to the park. My understanding is that some of the people who run the tent are meeting with staff on Monday to explore an alternate location for the tent. My greatest hope is that a compromise can be found that meets the needs of people sheltering and respects the City’s obligation as a Trustee of the park.
Emergency Social Services Grant to Meet Unmet Needs
What’s become clear in these past few weeks is that despite the fact that organizations that provide direct services to unhoused people have been awarded $464,952 through the federal Reaching Home program administered by the CRD, between July 1st 2020 and March 31st 2021 “for people who are unsheltered, to coordinate and facilitate ongoing access to drinking water, food, hygiene and health supplies, sheltering supplies, clothing, bathrooms, showers, handwashing, laundry, health and harm reduction services, fire safety supplies and plans, or waste management,” there is still an unmet need.
To help address this gap, on Thursday, Council created an emergency social services grant program of $100,000 from the federal-provincial restart money we received recently, to provide mobile showers and other social services to people in parks until the end of March 2021. The applications are due November 25th and will be adjudicated by Council on November 26th. The funds will be dispersed soon after that so that the much-needed services can be put in place as soon as possible.
The State of the City
For those of you who have written concerned about the state of the city, I hear you. Downtowns across the country have been hard hit by the pandemic. With so many people working from home, less foot traffic, theatres and live music venues closed, festivals cancelled, bars closing early, and of course the people left on the streets and in parks when everyone else has a home to go to, downtowns across the country are struggling. In the middle of this global health pandemic, Victoria is no exception.
However, it seems that those looking at Victoria from the outside have a bit of a different story to tell about our city than we’re sometimes able to tell ourselves. This past week the global media company Monocle have released their 2021 Small Cities Index, with Victoria ranked the 5th best small city in the world, up from 16th last year.
With an inbox tinged with negativity and pessimism this week about the state of the city, it was a good week to be named as one of the top small cities in the world! Victoria is clearly seen globally as a city of economic opportunity, diversity and a very high quality of life.
COVID-19 Second Wave
I always try to close these emails with a heartfelt message after so much of what might seem like curt fact sharing. The second wave of COVID-19 is upon us. One of my colleagues said it feels more like a tsunami. So far we’ve been doing really well in Victoria and on Vancouver Island, but the early warning sign of our growing case numbers is concerning.
In December 2019 and early in 2020, we watched COVID-19 hit China, then Europe, then the US and Canada. It was like watching a wave slowly build and then crash down on us. For the past few months I’ve had the same feeling watching Ontario and Quebec, then Manitoba, now Alberta, now the lower mainland. I really don’t want us to be next. I want there to be two “bubbles” in Canada, the “Atlantic bubble” as it’s called, and the Vancouver Island bubble. We can do this!
I know it’s exhausting. We count the days at City Hall; as of Friday we’ve been living in a global health pandemic for 249 days. That’s a lot. But we can and must continue to follow Dr. Henry’s orders: stay home if we’re sick, stick to our safe six in home gatherings, keep our distances, wear masks in indoor settings, and wash our hands. And we can also continue to follow Dr. Henry’s lead. We can be calm. And we can be kind. We will get through this.
To those of you who are living in encampments in Victoria, British Columbia, and across the country, I’m sorry that we have failed you. I am sorry that you’re living outside in the middle of a global health pandemic, that your basic right to housing is not being met. When the cold wind blows, when the rain comes down sideways, as the nights get longer and colder and darker, I think of each of you.
As this second wave of COVID-19 hits – in addition to supporting our businesses by implementing Victoria 3.0 – we’re going to work extra hard here, City Council and staff, along with BC Housing, Island Health and all our partners and allies, to meet your needs. We know you want housing; BC Housing has many of your housing applications, and if they don’t yet, please ask around in the parks the next time you see an outreach worker to ensure you get an application filled out. We’re going to work really hard, with you and for you, together as a community, to meet your right to housing.
Lisa / Mayor Helps
*Meegan is the Lekwungen name for Beacon Hill Park. Some of you who wrote this week used this name for it.