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 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

Right to Home – A National event on housing, homelessness, human rights and COVID-19

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Organizations from across Canada, including the City of Victoria, are partnering to create Right to Home, a week of virtual film screenings and live panel discussions from coast to coast to coast about what’s working, what’s not, and what’s next, as we re-imagine the right to home during and beyond the pandemic.

COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities in Canada’s housing and shelter systems. This is playing out on the ground in the City of Victoria and in cities across the country. As we rebuild our urban futures, we cannot risk going back to the way things were. If we take the right steps now, as a country, we can create transformative change.

Right to Home brings together the voices of those with boots on the ground, championing the right to housing across the country and around the world. From community organizers to institutional advocates, from politicians to people with lived experience of homelessness, every event provides a unique entry point to engage with one of the most pressing issues of this COVID time: the need ­– and the right ­– to a home.

The events take place from  July 27th to 31st. All Right to Home events are virtual and free of charge. You can find more information about the events and panelists as well as register here.

Right To Home Documentaries

Attendees can register to watch the two feature documentaries, Us & Them and Push and will receive virtual access to watch any time throughout the week.

Us and Them is a powerful documentary composed of striking portraits of four extraordinary homeless individuals as they struggle with addictions. The film is directed by Krista Loughton and Jennifer Abbott. The story follows Loughton’s ten-year journey exploring the worlds of Dawnellda, Stan, Eddie and Karen, who she attempts to help. In the end, it is Loughton herself who is changed. Punctuated with First Nations wisdom, and Dr. Gabor Maté’s insight into the root causes of addiction, the film shows there is no difference between us and them.

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Register to receive a streaming link for Us and Them. Watch the trailer.

Push is a documentary from award-winning director Fredrik Gertten, investigating why we can’t afford to live in our own cities anymore. Housing is a fundamental human right, a precondition to a safe and healthy life. But in cities all around the world, having a place to live is becoming more and more difficult. Who are the players and what are the factors that make housing one of today’s most pressing world issues?

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Register to receive a streaming link for Push. Watch the trailer.

Right to Home is hosted by the Canadian Urban Institute (CUI) and The Shift in partnership with the Aboriginal Housing Management Association, Architecture & Design Film Festival, BC Non-Profit Housing Association, Big Wheel Community Foundation & Big Wheel Burger, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, Canadian Housing & Renewal Association, Canadian Human Rights Commission, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, City of Victoria, Co-Operative Housing Federation of Canada, Maytree, UDI Victoria.

 

 

The Mayor Helps – New Podcast Created by Victoria Business Owner

It was the middle of pandemic, and Dave Hatt, owner of the WetCleaner – Victoria’s only non-toxic dry cleaner – saw a steady drop in business. As people began to work from home, they were more likely to be wearing sweats than suits. He saw his fellow small business owners also struggling. Rather than just sit around waiting for customers (who are thankfully now starting to return), he started a new venture, the Tunderin Podcast Network @TunderinMedia

He’s go a series of podcasts focused on small business, including TheMayorHelps. At first I wasn’t sure why he’d want to create a podcast featuring a mayor. But I said yes anyway! And I’m so glad I did. Each week we bring on local business people who pop into zoom, tell us a little bit about their businesses and then ask me a question. We also have a longer segment featuring change makers from across the country. And a state of the city where Dave grills me on current events in Victoria.

The flexibility of the show, and the fact that it happens weekly allows us to invite guests on to address issues of emerging concern in our community and across the country.

I’ve featured two episodes here. Just below, a great conversation with Ruth Mojeed in Victoria with the Inclusion Project. And above, a recent conversation with Brent Toderian, 21st century urbanist and former Head Planner at the City of Vancouver. You can find all the episodes here. Watch. Enjoy. Subscribe. And share!

Taking a Break from Twitter: The Stories We Tell About Our City Matter

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On Friday we announced the first step in the creation of the Ocean Futures Innovation Hub. This is one of the first actions in Victoria’s new economic plan, Victoria 3.0. The City is working together with the South Island Prosperity Partnership, the Association of British Columbia Marine Industries, Ocean Networks Canada, and companies large and small to create a future focused innovation hub in the downtown.

This is an exciting project! It will create jobs and a more resilient diverse economy coming out of the pandemic. It’s industry led and City supported. It’s a really good news story for our city and our region.

And, we got pretty good media coverage from a wide variety of media outlets in the region after we sent out the press release on Friday. Happy to see the results of our collective efforts so well received and positively profiled, I pinned one of the news stories to my Twitter profile.

As soon as I had posted, a whole bunch of comments about homelessness and tenting came into the feed. And comments on my performance as mayor.

On Saturday morning, I posted this picture to Twitter with thanks to the folks at Aryze who – using a tactical urbanism and placemaking approach – created this beautiful and functional piece of installation art in the Gorge Waterway. They installed it near the much-loved community swimming hole off of Banfield Park in Victoria West. IMG_6863.jpeg

And again, the same response. People jumping into the Twitter feed with comments that were negative and focused on homelessness and tenting and me, and not at all related to the great community effort underway.

I can take criticism. You don’t sign up for a job like this if you can’t. But the reason I’ve deactivated my Twitter account, is that the stories we tell about our city matter. And the mayor’s Twitter feed tells a story.

I use Twitter to support business-led efforts to recover from the pandemic and look to the future, like the Ocean Futures Innovation Hub. I post to support citizen-led efforts to spruce up the harbour and create a sense of joy and place. I post to support Destination Greater Victoria and the Downtown Victoria Business Association whose member businesses are working so hard right now, some just to survive. And to profile all the amazing arts and culture events that are happening, despite the pandemic. And to support our local non-profit sector which is working so hard to support members of our community who may be struggling right now.

And when I post these things and people immediately pile on with negativity and comments that are irrelevant to the matter in the post, it does a real disservice to these business-led and citizen-led efforts. It creates an ongoing negative story about our city. And this shouldn’t be the only story, when so many people are working so hard every day to stay positive and to create positivity during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

There is a homelessness crisis right now, in the city and across the province and country, and its made worse by the pandemic. It’s having a negative effect on so many people, those who are homeless and those who are housed. We’re working hard every day to  manage the crisis and we’re working with the wonderful ministers and staff at the Province to resolve it, to get people housed with the supports they need.

But there is more to Victoria’s story. A recent article in Western Investor highlighted Victoria 3.0, which they called “an ambitious blueprint for sustained post-pandemic recovery.” The vision is that “Victoria is a future-ready, globally fluent influencer and innovator. We will use our status as a small powerhouse to create a strong and resilient economy that meets our needs now and anticipates the future.” After quoting our vision they wrote, “We are betting this is more than posturing: Victoria is for real and should be a leading light out of the pandemic darkness.”

And there’s Build Back Victoria, a program that has seen a surge in patios in the downtown and in village centres. It’s made-in-Victoria vibrancy that is business-led and City supported and is helping businesses to recover and hire back staff.

And there’s all the amazing stuff happening in the local arts and culture sector – another key element of Victoria’s story. Throughout the pandemic our Arts, Culture and Events team at the City have been working hard with the arts and culture community so they can continue to do the great work they do. We need arts, culture and everyday creativity more than ever. There’s an inspiring array of events and activities here.

So I’m taking a break from Twitter to give all these community efforts the opportunity to shine, without detraction on my Twitter feed. I’ll be back at some point when the time feels right. To those who are still on social media, I’d like to encourage you to use it to make someone’s day, to share joy and kindness because goodness knows, this is what the world needs right now.

For those who need me, there are still lots of ways to say in touch! You can email mayor@victoria.ca, phone or text at 250-661-2708, speak with Council directly, or come to one of my Community Drop Ins, which have gone virtual during the pandemic.

 

 

 

Participatory Budgeting and Everyday Creativity Grants Help Residents #buildbackbetter

Update on City’s COVID-19 response and recovery. Video from Friday, June 26 2020.

The Province has announced Phase 3 of its ReStart Plan, which allows for “safe and smart travel” within BC and the re-opening of more hotels and resorts. Destination Greater Victoria is also promoting wide open spaces and places in Victoria, and ideas for what visitors from other parts of the province can do when visiting the Capital City. For more information, visit them here.

This is really good news for Victoria as tourism is a key element of our economy, particularly during the summer months. Destination Greater Victoria is doing some amazing work in re-thinking what tourism looks like in Victoria and I encourage everyone to be a tourist in our own home town – to check out some of the things you haven’t yet checked out and explore places you haven’t yet explored.

The federal and provincial governments recently committed $20 million to match the Capital Regional District’s contribution of $10 million for the Regional Housing First Program which is on track to have more than 1,800 affordable housing units completed or under construction in Greater Victoria by the end of 2022. The units will be a mixture of shelter-rate, affordable rental, and near-market rental – all of which are needed in the region.

We’re grateful to the provincial and federal governments and the Capital Regional District for their investments in the Regional Housing First program. This unprecedented program was made possible by all municipalities participating and is exactly the kind of cooperation we need to address housing affordability and homelessness across the region.

At last week’s Committee of the Whole meeting, based on public health advice, Council voted to allow people without homes to keep their tents up in permitted sheltering areas in the city until further advice is received by Dr. Bonnie Henry.

This is a temporary measure due to COVID-19. Services and shelters have been severely reduced and people without homes literally have nowhere to go during the day. I’d like to ask for patience and understanding, recognizing that we are still in the middle of a global health pandemic. Victoria is not alone. We need to work together and advocate to the provincial and particularly the federal government for more housing solutions.

Last Thursday, Council approved the Everyday Creativity Grant, a new, one-time grant aimed at increasing access for everyone to be creative through the arts and improve mental and physical health. Non-profit organizations or people partnering with non-profits are invited to submit ideas for engaging people to be creative and participate in the arts. Projects with an emphasis on learning, creative expression and broad public participation are eligible and grants range from $500 to $5,000. Information on how to apply will be available next week.

The City’s Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee is seeking proposals for the 2020 Participatory Budgeting initiative, which will see $50,000 invested in projects benefiting new immigrants and refugees in Victoria. Anyone with an idea for a project or activity that will enhance or enrich the lives of newcomers in the  community is invited to apply online at here by 4 p.m. on July 31, 2020.

If you have an idea or are curious about the participatory budgeting process and want to know more, two virtual open houses will be held on July 7 and 11 where you can learn all about it.  I’m curious to see which projects our residents think are important.

To date, under the Build Back Victoria initiative, the City has received 55 applications for new patios or flex spaces, 28 of which have been approved and 16 are in progress. Build Back Victoria initiatives support local businesses during their re-opening and recovery from the pandemic by providing public spaces for private use. Spaces on sidewalks, on streets, in parking spaces, and in plazas and parks are temporarily being made available for businesses to expand their footprint to safely conduct commercial activities.

These applications are coming from all over the city – downtown, James Bay, Fernwood, Hillside-Quadra. It’s great to see more space being created for businesses. We really need to do what we can to help businesses through this very challenging time. And it’s great for us, their loyal customers.

The community is invited to watch Victoria’s Canada Day, a virtual celebration on July 1 at 7 p.m. on CHEK for an impressive line-up of diverse, multicultural performances and community content. The one-hour, commercial free broadcast will also be streamed on canadadayvictoria.ca and the City’s YouTube channel.

Hosted by CHEK’s Joe Perkins and Stacy Ross, Victoria’s Canada Day will feature musical performances from an exciting local line-up, with a special performance by the Lekwungen Traditional Dancers.

What it means to live in Canada very much depends on your personal experience, whether you’re Indigenous, a newcomer, or have lived here for much or all of your life. We need to respect that for many, Canada Day is not an occasion for celebration. We need to acknowledge together our past wrongs and continue to work together with respect, cooperation and in partnership towards reconciliation.

Even though we can’t physically be together on the Legislature Lawn as we usually do, we can still come together virtually to mark Canada’s strengths and its diversity.

 

 

 

Build Back Victoria: A Path to Re-Opening and Recovery

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The City has implemented a number of initiatives to support local businesses and the community to re-open and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, including $575,000 in economic stimulus grants.

The new initiatives will give restaurants and businesses the opportunity to expand their patios, and services on sidewalks, streets and neighbourhood squares and plazas. Parks will also be opened up for approved business use, such as outdoor yoga and fitness classes. Applications opened today. And there are no fees to apply or to use public space.   To apply, visit victoria.ca/bizresouces

We are also unleashing the creativity of our community to build back by opening up space for businesses to expand while meeting social distancing requirements. These sweeping new programs are informed by what we have heard from businesses, artists and community groups for what’s needed for recovery right now.

In addition to the temporary flex space for businesses, the City has created 14 mobile vending stalls throughout neighbourhoods to allow food trucks and other mobile businesses to operate. Businesses can also apply for special customer pickup and delivery zones in front of or near their locations.

Those businesses already serving alcohol in their day-to-day operations were given additional freedom by Council to open patios with alcohol service. The Province remains responsible for certain aspects of enforcement in regard to food and liquor inspections. And today, Government Street was transformed into a pedestrian priority zone from Humboldt Street to Yates Street.

Council has approved a new Everyday Creativity Grant Program to increase access for everyone to be creative and enjoy the arts. A total of $125,000 is available and grants would encourage applicants to provide new creative programs to engage citizens in the arts and encourage broad participation and learning opportunities. Criteria and availability will be determined at a upcoming Council meeting.

Council also allocated an additional $100,000 to the current round of Strategic Plan Grants, as well as a $250,000 second round of Strategic Plan Grants to unleash the creativity of the community by encouraging them to bring forward project proposals for how the community can continue to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Council will review the proposals that have a specific focus on recovery and the deadline for submissions is July 15, 2020. An additional $100,000 was added to the My Great Neighbourhood COVID-19 grant stream that’s focused on community recovery and resiliency.

COVID-19 Recovery Virtual Town Hall

The community is invited to learn more about what’s planned and ask questions at the COVID-19 Recovery Virtual Town Hall on Tuesday, June 9 from 6:30 p.m. – 8 p.m., which will be webcast live and live streamed on the City’s Facebook page.

We’re really proud of the work staff have done to be bold and ambitious to Build Back Victoria. We’re excited to share it with the community, so we ‘re hoping people join us and ask questions.

There are three ways to participate: 1) ask your question by emailing it in advance to engage@victoria.ca to have it read aloud, 2) Email engage@victoria.ca to pre-register to participate by phone, or 3) watch the Virtual Town Hall on the City’s Facebook page and ask your question live. The deadline to email the City is noon on Monday, June 8. All questions will be limited to one minute in length to enable the maximum number of people to participate. For more information, visit: www.victoria.ca/townhall.