Provincial support, community care tent, $100,000 grant, housing update – Mayor’s Sunday Email – November 22 2020

This mobile shower unit was opened in Edmonton in late October by a community organization, Boyle Street Community Services. More details here at CTV Edmonton.

Hello everyone,

Thanks so much to everyone who has written to me this past week. In order to answer your emails in a timely way – and to make sure that everyone has the same information – I’m writing back to all of you at once. As always, I’ll use headings so you can just skip down to the topic of interest. If you’ve got a bit of time, I’d love if you would read the whole thing. If you’d like to stay in touch and receive these emails each week, you can sign up here on my website.

Provincial Support
This week I was copied on 91 form letters addressed to the Premier and Ministers Robinson, Fleming and Simpson, Grace Lore MLA for Victoria-Beacon Hill and Andrew Wilkinson. The form letter called on the Province to take control of the situation in Victoria and end 24/7 camping in parks immediately.

We haven’t stopped working with the provincial government since May when the Province rented motels, provided health supports and moved over 400 people inside in a matter of a few weeks. We meet weekly with BC Housing and Island Health and we are grateful for the ongoing spirit of partnership with which both agencies are undertaking the work of addressing homelessness, mental health and substance use.

We can’t end 24/7 camping immediately as there aren’t enough indoor spaces for everyone living outside in our parks and public spaces, especially with the recent fire at Capital City Centre, which I’ll say more about below.

We want to make Dr. Henry happy by following her advice and not displacing anyone from encampments in the middle of a global health pandemic until there are indoor options available. We want to make the Premier and many of our housed residents happy by ending 24/7 sheltering. And we want to work to provide the vulnerable people living outside with housing and the supports they need. We want them to have the safety that those of us who live in houses enjoy – a door to lock behind us each night. Council has set a goal of March 31st to achieve this, and we are going to need the Province’s help and support; we’re grateful that they’re working alongside us.

Community Care Tent, Showers and Water at Central Park
Some of you have written to us upset or angry about the removal of the Community Care Tent and showers at Meegan/Beacon Hill Park on Friday morning. This was a very difficult situation for everyone involved.

For what it’s worth – hopefully at least worth a read – I’d like to try to fix the game of broken telephone that social media has become and to share a few facts. As I’ve said in my blog posts over the past two Sundays, the tent and the showers were in violation of the Beacon Hill Trust and could not be allowed to remain. Instead of immediately removing the tent when it was set up on October 20th, staff posted a notice that the tent was in violation of the Parks Bylaws (which also reflects the Beacon Hill Trust) and asked that it be removed. See my blog post from last week to learn more.

Over the next few weeks staff and Councillor Potts worked hard with the volunteers who had set up the tent and the showers to find a new location for the them adjacent to the park – so the much needed services could be provided. Staff noted that the tent and the showers could both be relocated to an area adjacent to the park and provided information as to how the City could help to make this happen and what the volunteers needed to do as well. All of this can still happen and indeed the City has created a $100,000 grant program to help. More on that below.

But in the meantime, the showers were discharging grey water directly into the City’s storm drain system. And the care tent had a number of generators, gas cans, and other dangerous combustible materials. As the government, we need to balance safety needs with other needs. And we need to balance the immediate needs of those in Beacon Hill Park with the responsibility of the City to ensure that the park is available to all residents of Victoria for all uses for the long term. If the City is found by the courts to be in violation of the Trust, the risk is that we could lose the park altogether. This wouldn’t be good for anyone neither those currently sheltering nor the rest of the general public.

Some of you have said that the Beacon Hill Trust is a tool of colonization and that we should just ignore it for that reason. I agree that it is a colonial tool. And the City of Victoria is a colonial government. But for the reasons outlined above and last week, we can’t simply ignore the Trust, we have to uphold our responsibility under it.

I’ve also received emails (and I’m know this is also circulating on social media) about the police dismantling the tent and throwing everything inside into the garbage. The police were there to ensure that the bylaw officers and the contractors the City hired to help could do their work, so that neither members of the public or the workers would get injured. All of the items in the tent were carefully labelled and organized and are being stored and are available to be picked up from City bylaw. Nothing was thrown out. We recognize the hard work of the volunteers who want to help and those who brought donations.

One more update: I got an email asking why the drinking water had been turned off at Central Park this week. When people started to move to Central Park, City staff set up a water station so there would be access to potable water. Recently as it’s gotten colder out, the station – which was designed as a temporary measure – began to freeze. Staff turned it off for a short period so they could fix it and get it ready for winter. As of Friday the water was running again.

$100,000 Grant Program to Address Immediate Needs
We are 10 months into a global heath pandemic and people have been living outside during this time with a hodge podge of health and hygiene services provided by the City, service providers and volunteers. There’s still a gap.

On November 5th the City learned that it would receive $6.5 million in federal-provincial “restart” money to help address budget shortfalls and other needs as a result of COVID-19. On November 19th, Council created a $100,000 grant program with some of this money in order to help meet the still unmet needs of people living outdoors, including mobile hygiene/shower services and some of the other services that were offered by the care tent in Meegan/Beacon Hill Park.

The grant applications are due this Wednesday, November 25th. Council will evaluate them November 26th and the funds will be dispersed as soon as possible after that so that these necessary services can be provided. We’re looking for creative, innovative ideas. The application form can be found here.

Housing Update
For those of you who are looking for updates on the number of people being housed, on Friday the Community Wellness Alliance Decampment Working Group which is made up of BC Housing, Island Health, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness and Our Place, decided that BC Housing, Island Health and the Aboriginal Coalition would provide monthly updates on the movement of people from supportive housing into market housing and from parks to supportive housing. I’ll share the progress updates on my blog. Of course we will respect everyone’s privacy and only numbers of people will be shared, not names or locations.

And speaking of progress, we’ve run into a few hurdles to our goal of moving 200 people inside by the end of the year. We look forward to the new provincial government getting sworn in and helping us further to sort through some of these challenges.

The first hurdle was the fire at the Capital City Centre that displaced 84 people. Everyone had to move out. The motel is being repaired and people will be moving back in when it is ready. But not all the rooms will be available and we don’t know how many – if any – will be available before the end of the year. That means that some of the units we were counting on to move people into – the 60 new Regional Housing First Units in Langford and View Royal that are opening this month and next, and the 110 rent supplement units – will be needed by people displaced from Capital City Centre.

Additionally, we’ve been bending our brains for the past few weeks with Island Health, BC Housing, the United Way of Greater Victoria and Devon Properties to figure out how to creatively fill the gap between the $825 total rent available with a rent supplement and the monthly market rents in the region that range from $1200-$1500 per month. Please email me mayor@victoria.ca if you have any ideas! Others have been working on a program to support landlords who are considering renting to people who are ready to move out of supportive housing and into the private market.

So of course we’re not giving up because we believe that housing is a human right and winter is here and no one should be outside. But we’re going to need some more help to meet the year-end goal.

About Everything Else
A few of you have written and said that I am overly concerned with people who are homeless and don’t care about anyone or anything else. It’s true that this is a really pressing issue for all of us right now. And it’s true that Council, the City’s senior leadership team, and especially our front line staff across many departments are working hard on this issue right now, both to manage it and to help develop solutions. It’s the issue that fills up my email inbox the most. And it’s the issue that tends to fill the papers and newscasts, in addition, of course to news and information about COVID-19.

But I do want you all to know that while I’m spending a lot of time, energy and convening power on addressing homelessness, we’re working hard on everything else too. Our staff are out there every day providing over 200 services directly to residents and businesses. Garbage is being picked up, clean water is coming out of our taps, potholes are being filled, etc.

As for me, I considered putting a screen shot of my calendar from last week here so you could see all the other things I’m working on, but it looked way too crammed and kind of impossible to read. Then I thought I might make a long list of all the projects that we’re working on to help small businesses recover from COVID-19, to diversify our economy for the future, to address climate change and so on.

But I don’t think you want snapshots of calendars, or lists. I think you just want to know that I’m listening and that I hear you. Since late August I’ve been reading hundreds of emails weekly and responding in what I hope is a heartfelt, direct and honest way. I’m listening. And I hear you. I hear you in all your diversity of opinion: those of you who think we’re not doing enough to support people who are living without homes and those who think we are doing too much; those of you who think the city is going downhill and those of you who are happy about all the changes you’re seeing as we prepare for the future.

I hear your anger, your frustration, your fear. I hear your gratitude and your generosity. I hear how difficult a time this is for some people, for so many reasons. None of us have lived through a global health pandemic, and I certainly didn’t expect to be the mayor leading through one! I hear you when you say it is a really difficult time. And I hope you hear me when I say that we will get through this, together.

With gratitude,
Lisa / Mayor Helps

meegan/Beacon Hill Park, showers, human rights, The state of the City, and covid-19 second wave – Mayor’s Sunday Email – November 15 2020

Click on the picture to learn more about The Shift’s work or follow #MakeTheShift

Hello everyone,

I continue to receive lots of emails on sheltering related issues and I want to make sure everyone gets a response and has information, so I’m answering you all at once! I hope you’ll take the time to read and share with others too. These emails tend to be long, but it’s because I want to address the key issues that we’re hearing about. If you’d like to stay up to date and receive emails from me on a weekly basis you can sign up for my blog here.

I have to admit that when I read through the 94 emails I received this week on this topic, I felt a bit depressed. You would too if you saw my inbox. Many of you wrote saying how terrible Council and I are for not supporting people who are living without homes, for cutting off all the water in Meegan/Beacon Hill Park (this didn’t happen), for violating human rights, for asking that the Community Care Tent be completely dismantled (this didn’t happen), for not supporting community efforts to support the homeless. There were also a few really angry emails from people that had received a small portion of the email I sent last weekend, taken out of context and turned into a picture (presumably shared on social media) that took me to task for saying that providing housing perpetuates addiction. I didn’t say this.

And then, there is another whole series of angry emails from people asking me how we could continue to let people shelter in parks, how we would dare provide hygiene services or bus tickets to access them with their tax dollars, why we couldn’t immediately dismantle the Community Care Tent, how could we let the city, the downtown go like we have. And so on.

Although there were a few people who wrote with curiosity and a spirit of generosity, the common tone from both so-called sides was anger. I get it. We’re in the middle of a global health pandemic with no end in sight. You’re tired of the uncertainty. You just want things to go back to normal. You don’t want to have to work so hard to have people’s basic needs met. You want to be able to walk in the park and not worry, or feel heartbreak for those who are sleeping outside. You wish your mayor and your city council could fix everything that’s broken.

I wish this too. But we can’t. The challenges are too big, too complex. They’re systemic. Leilani Farha who works with The Shift on the right to housing said the other day that she couldn’t name one major city in Canada that doesn’t have encampments.

But what we can do – and what we are doing, every day – is to continue to work to get people into safe, secure affordable housing with the supports they need. We can continue to convene BC Housing, Island Health, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness, provincial staff and many others to do this. We can set bold goals, like the one Council adopted this week – to get everyone currently sheltering in parks into housing, or shelters on the pathway to housing by March 31st 2021 and once that happens, to end 24/7 camping in parks.

And perhaps most importantly, we can share information.

Showers and Water at Meegan*/Beacon Hill Park
Last weekend a group of residents wanting to help out fellow residents installed showers in Beacon Hill Park. These showers were built by experienced carpenters and they looked really great. But they were also proposed to be heated with propane and hadn’t been certified or inspected. If the showers were hooked up to water and used and there was an explosion of some sort, someone who was showering could get really hurt. This wasn’t a chance that city staff wanted to take. Also the showers could put the city in violation of the Beacon Hill Trust (see last week’s blog post for more information). City staff turned off the water at the one tap at the gravel field. All the other water sources and washrooms in the park remain open and on 24 hours a day seven days a week as they have been since people have been sheltering in the park during the pandemic.

I wish I’d had time to write back to all of you during the week, one at a time. This would probably have helped with the spread of misinformation. I’m member of the national Right to Home working group and am working closely with Leilani Farha who wrote the UN Protocol for Encampments that some of you sent to me this week. But more than my membership in any national working group, I had hoped that our approach to sheltering during COVID-19 – not displacing people and doing our very best to provide the hygiene support necessary – would speak for itself.

The showers were removed earlier in the week by the people who put them there.

Last week the City got funding to keep showers open at Our Place seven days a week from 8am to 9pm; there are now 13 hours every day where people can access showers. To help those who need to get there Council is funding bus tickets. See my blog post from last week for more details. There are still gaps. I will say more about this below.

Community Care Tent
As noted in my blog post last Sunday, Council values the services provided by the Community Care Tent. It’s just that the tent violates the Beacon Hill Trust. As I also said last week, the consequences of the City being found in violation of the Trust are severe and would likely be detrimental to people who are currently sheltering in the park. This is a very real threat as the Friends of Beacon Hill have vowed to sue the City to end sheltering in the park.

All Council asked was that the tent be moved to a spot adjacent to the park. My understanding is that some of the people who run the tent are meeting with staff on Monday to explore an alternate location for the tent. My greatest hope is that a compromise can be found that meets the needs of people sheltering and respects the City’s obligation as a Trustee of the park.

Emergency Social Services Grant to Meet Unmet Needs
What’s become clear in these past few weeks is that despite the fact that organizations that provide direct services to unhoused people have been awarded $464,952 through the federal Reaching Home program administered by the CRD, between July 1st 2020 and March 31st 2021 “for people who are unsheltered, to coordinate and facilitate ongoing access to drinking water, food, hygiene and health supplies, sheltering supplies, clothing, bathrooms, showers, handwashing, laundry, health and harm reduction services, fire safety supplies and plans, or waste management,” there is still an unmet need.

To help address this gap, on Thursday, Council created an emergency social services grant program of $100,000 from the federal-provincial restart money we received recently, to provide mobile showers and other social services to people in parks until the end of March 2021. The applications are due November 25th and will be adjudicated by Council on November 26th. The funds will be dispersed soon after that so that the much-needed services can be put in place as soon as possible.

The State of the City
For those of you who have written concerned about the state of the city, I hear you. Downtowns across the country have been hard hit by the pandemic. With so many people working from home, less foot traffic, theatres and live music venues closed, festivals cancelled, bars closing early, and of course the people left on the streets and in parks when everyone else has a home to go to, downtowns across the country are struggling. In the middle of this global health pandemic, Victoria is no exception.

However, it seems that those looking at Victoria from the outside have a bit of a different story to tell about our city than we’re sometimes able to tell ourselves. This past week the global media company Monocle have released their 2021 Small Cities Index, with Victoria ranked the 5th best small city in the world, up from 16th last year.

With an inbox tinged with negativity and pessimism this week about the state of the city, it was a good week to be named as one of the top small cities in the world! Victoria is clearly seen globally as a city of economic opportunity, diversity and a very high quality of life.

COVID-19 Second Wave
I always try to close these emails with a heartfelt message after so much of what might seem like curt fact sharing. The second wave of COVID-19 is upon us. One of my colleagues said it feels more like a tsunami. So far we’ve been doing really well in Victoria and on Vancouver Island, but the early warning sign of our growing case numbers is concerning.

In December 2019 and early in 2020, we watched COVID-19 hit China, then Europe, then the US and Canada. It was like watching a wave slowly build and then crash down on us. For the past few months I’ve had the same feeling watching Ontario and Quebec, then Manitoba, now Alberta, now the lower mainland. I really don’t want us to be next. I want there to be two “bubbles” in Canada, the “Atlantic bubble” as it’s called, and the Vancouver Island bubble. We can do this!

I know it’s exhausting. We count the days at City Hall; as of Friday we’ve been living in a global health pandemic for 249 days. That’s a lot. But we can and must continue to follow Dr. Henry’s orders: stay home if we’re sick, stick to our safe six in home gatherings, keep our distances, wear masks in indoor settings, and wash our hands. And we can also continue to follow Dr. Henry’s lead. We can be calm. And we can be kind. We will get through this.

To those of you who are living in encampments in Victoria, British Columbia, and across the country, I’m sorry that we have failed you. I am sorry that you’re living outside in the middle of a global health pandemic, that your basic right to housing is not being met. When the cold wind blows, when the rain comes down sideways, as the nights get longer and colder and darker, I think of each of you.

As this second wave of COVID-19 hits – in addition to supporting our businesses by implementing Victoria 3.0 – we’re going to work extra hard here, City Council and staff, along with BC Housing, Island Health and all our partners and allies, to meet your needs. We know you want housing; BC Housing has many of your housing applications, and if they don’t yet, please ask around in the parks the next time you see an outreach worker to ensure you get an application filled out. We’re going to work really hard, with you and for you, together as a community, to meet your right to housing.

With gratitude,

Lisa / Mayor Helps

*Meegan is the Lekwungen name for Beacon Hill Park. Some of you who wrote this week used this name for it.

Showers, community care tent, The City’s role and next steps towards housing – mayor’s sunday Email – november 8 2020

The City’s new Fire Hall under construction on Johnson Street with 130 units of affordable housing on top.

Hello everyone,

Thanks for taking the time to write to me this past week. We’re still receiving quite a few emails on the topic of people sleeping outside. I’m writing back to everyone at once as I want to make sure to respond to all of you and to share information. If you’d like to stay in touch on this topic, you can follow my blog here. If you’d like to know about the efforts the City along with BC Housing, Island Health and other community partners are making to move people inside – we’ve set a goal of responding to the needs of 200 people for indoor sheltering by the end of 2020 – please read my blog posts from Sunday November 1st and Sunday October 25th. There is a lot of information in those posts on the work that’s happening and the progress we’re making to move people indoors.

This week most of the emails we’ve received are focused on bus passes, the installation of showers and the Community Care Tent in Beacon Hill Park to. So I’m going to focus on responding to those issues. After that I’ll respond to some of the other concerns you’ve raised about people camping in parks and share a report that Councillor Loveday and I are bringing to City Council this coming Thursday. It outlines the work we need to do as a community to get the people currently living in our parks inside, safe and secure with the supports needed and put an end for the need for people to shelter in parks.

As always, I’ll use headings so feel free to skip to the section that interests you. I do encourage you to read the whole email if you can – there’s lots of important information here. And from some of the emails we’ve received, it seems like some people might not have the full picture, especially when it comes to Beacon Hill Park.

Bus Passes and Showers
During the pandemic, each city across Canada has taken a different approach to ensuring that people living outside have access to showers. For example, in London Ontario, the YMCA opened its doors for people without homes to shower. In Edmonton there is a roving shower trailer that goes to different locations around the city.

In Victoria, when there was a large encampment in Topaz Park, there was a shower trailer set up there that was run by the service providers who were overseeing the operations of the camp. At the same time, the City provided additional funding to Our Place and also deployed City staff to ensure COVID-19 cleaning protocols could be followed in the Our Place showers when there was a large encampment on the Pandora corridor. Since people moved inside from those encampments in May, showers have been available at Our Place.

However, we’ve heard and learned that people living outside haven’t had adequate access to the showers at Our Place because they are not open long enough, because some people weren’t able to get there, and because some people didn’t feel comfortable leaving their important belongings in their tents while they went to shower. That’s why this week – with the leadership of Councillor Thornton-Joe – the City has accessed funding to keep showers open at Our Place seven days a week from 8am to 9pm; there are now 13 hours every day where people can access showers.

To help those who need to get there – and because of the leadership of Councillor Potts and the Community Social Planning Council – Council unanimously adopted a motion last Thursday to allocate up to $2800 per month for the next three months to pay for bus tickets for people who need to take the bus to get to showers. And, Our Place recognizes the need for people’s belongings to be safe. That’s why they’ve created space in their lockers for people to leave their belongings safely while they shower.

This is not a perfect solution. A perfect solution is that people live inside, in safe, secure housing. And that they can have a shower in their home, just like those of us who live inside do every day. But it’s a made-in-Victoria solution to providing access to showers, just as other cities across the country have come up with their own solutions.

Community Care Tent and Showers in Beacon Hill Park
Many of you wrote this week expressing support for the Community Care Tent that has been set up in Beacon Hill Park noting the value that it is providing to the people who are living outside. The majority of Council agrees that this is valuable. That’s why, hearing the concerns of the community about the need for this care tent, Council voted 7-1 at our meeting Thursday to direct staff to work with the community organizations running the tent to find an appropriate location for it nearby but not in the park.

Council has given direction. The tent can’t remain in the park. There is a really important piece of information that I hope everyone interested in this issue will take to heart and share with others. Beacon Hill Park is governed by the Beacon Hill Trust that dates back to 1882. The Trust dictates the kinds of activities that can happen in the park and the kind that can’t. The Trust has been tested in court a number of times and each time it has been upheld.

The Community Care Tent is not the kind of activity or structure that can remain in the park according to the Trust. This is really important and should be of concern to everyone who cares about the right for people to shelter in Beacon Hill Park. If the Community Care Tent is not removed, the City could be found to be in violation of the Trust. Being found in violation of the Trust is serious and could put the park at risk and some important uses that are valued by the community may not be able to continue.

The showers installed in the park fall into the same category. This is why Council worked hard to get a showering solution in place as outlined above. The showers also can’t remain in the park.

This is a situation where context and the bigger picture need to be considered so that we are able, collectively, to take care of and provide services to our most vulnerable residents. We’re all working towards the same end.

Following Council’s direction, and knowing that Council sees the need for the Community Care Tent, on Friday staff in Parks and Engineering worked hard to come up with a solution. We are grateful for their work to do so. On Friday evening Council got a note from our Director of Parks letting us know that representatives from Engineering worked on the technical requirements for where the tent could relocate. On Friday evening staff were advised by one person – speaking on behalf of the tent group – that they in fact had no interest in moving the tent to any new location. 

Some of you have appealed to staff directly. Council has given staff clear direction to come up with a compromise. If you have concerns about these issues, please write to mayorandcouncil@victoria.ca rather than to our staff.

Next Steps and the City’s Role
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve received so many emails outlining the challenges that sheltering in parks is having on everyone – those sheltering and those wanting to use the parks. And I’ve been updating weekly for a few months now on the actions that the City is taking. There seems to be one thing that I’m not communicating clearly enough, as each week we still receive emails like this one:

“You need to find a way to treat those addicted and break the cycle of supply and demand. Focus your energy towards this goal and not in the direction it appears to be heading. Housing people even if it were possible does not cure the addictions they carry. Medical intervention should be the mandate followed. Free tenting or housing just leaves the situation to continue to grow … I hope this  clarity will guide you and council to brighter days and better times for those less advantaged.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this email. But – and here’s the clarity – cities are not health care providers. Myself and the 12 other mayors in the BC Urban Mayors’ Caucus agree that the number one issue facing our cities across the province right now, is the untreated mental health and addictions crisis. There are people left on the street or living in motels with complex needs who need comprehensive medical care. We look forward to working hard alongside the new government to make sure that these needs are met, to everyone’s benefit.

So what can the City do? Here’s a excerpt from the report that Councillor Loveday and I are bringing to Council for consideration on Thursday. Our recommendations are at the end of the excerpt. You can read the whole report here.

Background
The recommendations here are a suite of actions that the City and its partners can take to work towards providing housing or indoor shelter with a path to permanent housing to everyone currently sheltering outdoors in the city and to put an end to 24/7 camping in city parks. We understand that not all of the solutions outlined in the recommendations will be implemented by March 31st. But we are confident that working together with BC Housing and Island Health, enough indoor spaces can be provided by March 31st while medium term solutions – like the construction of affordable, supportive housing on Yates Street and Meares Street through modular (quick) construction methods – will follow. There is urgency to act now with winter upon us. We believe that setting a goal to work towards will help focus and mobilize action. 

Additionally, doing this work together with the Province will result in savings for both parties. Earlier this year the Province spent a significant amount of money to run a tent encampment in Topaz Park. The Province has also supported the City through Emergency Management BC with roughly $500,000 in funding to help manage sheltering related costs during the Provincial State of Emergency. This year it is estimated that the City’s direct costs for managing sheltering in parks will be $1.4 million. For the 2021 budget – if the status quo remains – staff are estimating a $1.7 million expenditure for managing outdoor sheltering.

City of Victoria Support for Affordable Housing
The City of Victoria has been supporting the creation of affordable housing for at least a decade. The City of Victoria Housing Reserve Fund supports the creation of affordable housing through direct funding of units on a per-bedroom basis including $10,000 per bedroom for low-income units and $5000 per bedroom for moderate income units. The per bedroom basis incentives the creation of larger units. Non-profit developers often express that although it is a small contribution compared to those from senior levels of government, the City’s contribution helps to make projects viable.

The City created the 2016-2025 Victoria Housing Strategy which is currently in Phase Two (2019-2022). The Housing Strategy begins from the premise that housing is a human right and prioritizes actions that create affordable housing. The five key themes of Phase Two include prioritizing renters and renter households, increasing the supply of housing for low to moderate income households in Victoria, increasing housing choice for all Victorians, optimizing existing policies and processes, and trying new and bold approaches. As a result of COVID-19, Council has re-prioritized the Phase Two actions that will help to ensure housing security for renters.  

The City has also used City-owned land for the purposes of supporting affordable housing. Together with School District 61, the City has contributed land to a project on Caledonia Street, which, if approved, will see the creation of 158 affordable units. In Burnside Gorge the City has also contributed city land and partnered with SD61 for the creation of 88 units of affordable housing. On top of the City’s new fire hall on Johnson Street there are 130 units of affordable housing under construction. And the City has recently purchased land that could be used for affordable housing and other community purposes.

The City does not have constitutional jurisdiction over housing or the resources to provide housing and shelter. Yet it is clear that we have – and will continue ­– to do our part using the tools and resources available to us, in partnership with BC Housing and Island Health, other public agencies and non-profits, and the private sector.

City of Victoria Advocacy Efforts
The City of Victoria has worked hard over the past six years to advocate for housing funding from the provincial and federal governments. It was a motion from Victoria City Council to the CRD that resulted in the beginnings of the CRD Regional Housing First Program. It was CRD staff that took the idea from Victoria Council and worked creatively to develop a program that resulted in a $40 million regional investment that was matched by $40 million from both the provincial and federal governments. This $120 million in funding has leveraged a total of $600 million in construction and will result in 2000 units of affordable and rental housing, including 400 units that rent at $375 per month. At this point, the majority of these units are being built outside of the City of Victoria.

In addition, Mayor Helps has been part of the Right to Home national municipal working group since the beginning of COVID-19. This national organizing and advocacy helped to shape the federal Rapid Housing Initiative and included the CRD securing $13 million through this initiative – the only regional district in the country to receive direct funding.

While both of these programs are regional in nature and have been initiated and supported by regional staff and elected officials across the region, the City’s efforts have been instrumental. 

Need for Shelter for all in Global Health Pandemic
People are sheltering in parks in the City and across the province and country because when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shelters had to reduce their numbers because of physical distancing measures. These physical distancing measures are still in place. 

We are now in the second wave of a pandemic that has hit seniors disproportionately. While it is unacceptable for anyone to be living outside in the middle of a global health pandemic, it is unconscionable that there are seniors living in tents when there is a recently vacated seniors home in our region. 

We respect that Oak Bay Council and the CRD are in a planning process for the future of the Oak Bay Lodge lands. We also understand that the building will be demolished at some point to make way for the new development. What we don’t think we should accept as a community is that it is more acceptable for seniors to spend the winter in tents than it is for them to spend the winter in a building recently vacated by seniors. 

Earlier in the pandemic there was a shortage of operators and not enough staff for temporary affordable housing sites. Recently a housing provider needed to hire 40 staff when they took over the running of a couple of housing sites; they were able to easily hire 40 staff who were trained to work in affordable housing sites. 

We recommend that the Province move seniors currently living in parks into a small portion of the Oak Bay Lodge until the building is demolished and secure an operator to run a small portion of the building. We understand that the building is in poor condition. We are certain that the condition of the building is better than a tent for a 70 year old. 

Recommendations

1.  That Council direct staff to work with a private land owner or to use city-owned land for the construction of temporary tiny home clusters of no more than 30 units beginning with one pilot project in Q1 of 2021 subject to the availability of one year of operating funding from BC Housing.

2.  That Council allocate a portion of the City’s federal-provincial restart money in early 2021 to help fund solutions that will move people indoors.

3.  That the City request the Province immediately open Oak Bay Lodge to people 55 years and older who are currently living in City parks until the vacant building is demolished for redevelopment.

4.   That the City indicate to the Province that it supports the use of the two sites recently purchased by the Province on Yates Street and Meares Street for affordable, supportive housing and encourages the Province to begin construction of modular housing on those sites as soon as possible, respecting the City’s design guidelines.

5.   That the City of Victoria works with the Province and other partners to offer housing or indoor shelter with a path to permanent housing for everyone currently sheltering in City parks by March 31st 2021 and directs staff to bring forward amendments to the Parks Regulation Bylaw so that the temporary measures including 24/7 camping expire on March 31st 2021. Final adoption of these amendments are to be scheduled once it is clear that adequate housing and shelter space will be made available by the March 31st deadline.

6.  That the City supports partner agencies in engaging people currently sheltering in City parks to determine their housing and support needs, to inform the operation of shelter and housing facilities and ensure access to safe and adequate housing for all. 

Thanks for reading all the way to the end of this very long email. As always, I know there is a lot of information in here. It’s really important to me that this is shared as widely as possible so that everyone in the community has access. Please feel free to forward. And to stay in touch, sign up here.

With gratitude,

Lisa / Mayor Helps

housing Update, questions addressed, pandemic mental health impacts, how you can help, And waterfront walkway, – mayor’s Sunday email –  November 1 2020

This is the last slide in a presentation I’m working on to engage landlords, property management companies and others who can help find private market rental units for people living in supportive housing so those who are ready can move out into market units, so people living outside can move in.

Hello everyone,

Thanks very much to everyone who took the time to write to me this past week on the topic of sheltering and related issues. I really value receiving your emails and I also appreciate this weekly opportunity to respond. For those of you who have written for the first time, this email is a response to as many questions as possible all at once. I also post it to my blog so if you want to stay up to date but don’t want to write to me every week, you can follow my blog here.

These emails tend to be long because there is a lot of information to share. For ease, there are headings so you can just skip to where you like. The first section is an update on the Decampment Working Group. Second I address your questions and comments. Third, I’ll reflect on a report from the Public Health Agency of Canada released this week, what it means for our community and what we can do about it. If you read nothing else, I’d encourage you to skip down to that part.

Decampment Working Group Update – Moves are Happening!
The Decampment Working Group – made up of the City, Island Health, BC Housing, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness and Our Place – meets weekly to help ensure that everything is in place to support people in moving from outside to inside. Last week I published the group’s August to February work plan, which is focused on moving at least 200 people inside by the end of the year. You can read it here. We know that people want to move in because the majority of people living outside have filled out applications for housing.

Some good news! At Friday’s meeting it was reported that eight more people will move inside as of November 1st. That makes 24 people finding housing since we started our work in earnest in early September. And more good news: Also as of November 1st, 11 people will be moving out of shelters, motels, or supportive housing into private market rental units freeing up space for 11 more people to move in from parks. This is the positive flow we’ve been working towards for the last few months and it’s great to see th efforts beginning to result in people moving into safe, secure and affordable housing with the supports they need.

One person who wrote this week has asked for “minutes” of the decampment working group. There are no minutes per se; each week we report in on the work plan (see last week’s blog post) and assign actions for the next week. It’s an action oriented and bureaucracy light group! It is my pleasure to provide an update in these weekly emails / posts so the community can follow some of the successes and challenges.

Our challenge right now is finding 100 more private market rental units at rents of no more than $825 per month – that’s the total amount of the shelter allowance plus a BC Housing / Island Health rent supplement. The average market rent for a bachelor or one-bedroom unit is somewhere between $1000 and $1500. So we’re going to need to get creative. For more details on the rent supplement program and how it works, you can read the Decampment Working Group Update from last Sunday. (It’s the first section of the post.)

Your Questions and Comments Addressed
Some of you have written this week and want quick action to get people out of parks. As you can see from the update above, as well as last week’s update and weekly updates since late August, there are no quick fixes to a complex situation like homelessness and the sometimes accompanying mental health and addictions issues. There is slow, coordinated, methodical work that takes as its starting point meeting the needs of those without shelter for safe, secure indoor housing with supports as needed. That’s the work we’ve been doing alongside BC Housing and Island Health since the onset of the pandemic. And it’s work that will continue.

One of you put it very thoughtfully: “Now the temperature is getting close to freezing and we do nothing ….I fortunately have been able to get my landlord to turn up my heat…a bit of a struggle and with many phone calls….this is beyond belief that we can leave people unhoused and freezing – I can say being cold without any hope of warming is truly inhumane. I have been cold in my home prior to landlord finally stepping in as one of the most horrible times I could imagine, yet I look across the street and see people trying to exist in this.”

A few people asked specifically about Central Park which has a disproportionate number of people living there. Central Park will continue to be an area of focus for the coming weeks to achieve bylaw compliance. This means that people will likely be moving to other parks around the city as a temporary measure.

Some of you have also suggested changes to better manage the outdoor sheltering situation including putting everyone in one outdoor area, like the gravel field in Beacon Hill Park. I addressed this in my post last week, so feel free to have a read through. Others have asked about bylaw enforcement of the current rules and have made some suggestions as to how to achieve compliance with the City’s current bylaws. Thanks for the suggestions, I’ll pass them along to our bylaw staff.

Our bylaw officers and our parks staff are all working really hard out there to ensure that the bylaws are followed, for the safety and security of everyone concerned. It’s not easy work as there are over two hundred people sleeping outdoors in various parks, all trying to meet their basic needs for shelther, warmth and food. Bylaw staff can’t be everywhere at once. It is definitely a dance.

Some Oaklands and Fairfield residents have written requesting that the bylaws be changed to require 8 metres between tenting sites and private property lines. My understanding is that there are a couple of councilors who propose to bring forward a recommendation to change the bylaws accordingly. Each time we change the bylaws it means printing new signs and new maps. And it means more confusion as to what is allowed where, and what is not, which makes achieving compliance more difficult.

But we are trying to balance as many needs as possible in this temporary situation we find ourselves in as a result of a global health pandemic, so if councilors make a motion to change the bylaws to require a certain distance between shelters and private property, I will support this. Changing bylaws takes at least two council meetings and then there are the sign and map changes that need to happen and after that education about the new rules, and then enforcement. So it is a bit of a process.

As in past weeks I’ve also heard concerns about people feeling like the use of parks is being constrained by people living in them, that some of the regular activities that happen in parks, like youth soccer, are being challenged right now. The bylaws require at least 8m between tents and playing fields. While that might not be as much of a buffer as some would like, it does provide access to playing fields.

As for sweeping the fields in advance of playing, I know this puts extra stress on the coaches and parents who are already working hard to meet COVID-19 safety protocols to keep youth sports going. I want to thank all the coaches and parents for working hard; outdoor youth sports are so important right now as a way to support youth mental health and also exercise. The pre-game or pre-practice field sweeping is for now, it’s not forever. And I’m grateful to have community members willing to do this work.

Some of you have suggested modular housing or building housing for people currently living without homes. This work is underway by the CRD through the Regional Housing First Program as well as through many non-profit housing providers like Pacifica and Cool Aid. Between the CRD, Pacifica and Cool Aid there are over 1000 units of affordable or supportive housing under construction or in the development process right now. This past week the CRD received notice of an additional $13.1 million through the federal government’s Rapid Housing Initiative. The federal government expects that this money we will build at least 52 units of housing by December 2021. It’s going to take regional effort to get this money working that quickly. In this CBC interview I talk about how we can do this and hopefully how we can get more than 52 units built!

Someone else wrote and provided some advice on how to approach and support landlords to provide rent supplements. Thanks for that; all good advice that we’ll incorporate into our approach. Someone else wrote this thoughtful email along the same lines:

“I heard your call for people who have space available to rent to someone who is currently homeless, unfortunately I do not have space.  However, I do know that landlords are more likely to rent to individuals who are connected to services.

“I am curious to know if we could support people who are homeless by being a friend and helping them navigate the health, social services, and education systems etc.  I’m thinking of retired nurses and social workers who might have expertise in these areas to fill the role of friend and navigator.  What do you think?  I would appreciate hearing your thoughts, particularly how feasible you think this idea might be.  Thank you.”

This is a really important point. Some of the people who move into market rental units from supportive housing are all ready to live independently and without supports. Others are attached to Island Health teams who provide supports as needed. What I love about this email is the notion of “being a friend.” The Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness has a peer support program. It’s an amazing program run by people who have experienced homelessness, who are now securely housed and who are able to offer friendship and peer-support to others coming off of the streets.

Finally, here are a few questions and answers re: City resources:

  • How many temporary hotels and/or housing complexes is the City currently financially supporting, in part or full, for people at risk?
    The City doesn’t financially support housing; it is not part of the City’s mandate / jurisdiction.
  • Can you list each temporary hotel and/or housing complex by neighbourhood?
    Please inquire with BC Housing.
  • To date, what is the operating and/or purchase cost from the City’s budget that is being used to support each of  these temporary hotels and/or housing complexes since the provincial State of Emergency was declared?
    The City has not purchased motels and doesn’t operate them so we have put no financial resources into these.
  • To date, what is the operating and/or purchase cost from the City’s budget that is being used to support temporary tenting in City parks since the provincial State of Emergency was declared?
    The current estimate is that by the end of the year, the City will have spent $1.15 million on managing homelessness and temporary encampments.

Pandemic Mental Health Impacts, How You Can Help, and Waterfront Walkway
I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, because I know that many of you who wrote to me this week and many reading this post didn’t write to me about your own feelings and how you’re coping with all the pandemic restrictions. But I’m worried about our community.

I’m worried about seniors who might be feeling especially isolated. I’m worried about kids who are living a very strange version of “normal” right now, with all the restrictions. I’m worried about parents who are extra stressed trying to hold down a job, and then having to pick up a child at school who has the slightest sniffle. I’m worried about all the teachers whose bubbles are very large, teaching and taking care of our kids. I’m worried about the nurses and doctors who have been working hard under incredibly stressful conditions for months. I’m worried about people who are sick and dying with very few loved ones by their sides, and about babies coming into the world without being greeted and passed around to loving family members and friends. And I’m worried about people who are living outside in tents at the onset of winter in the middle of a global health pandemic.

It turns out that my worries are well founded. A report released this week by the Public Health Agency of Canada outlines the effects of the pandemic in the lives of Canadians. The report shows that so many people are suffering mental health effects as a result of all the pandemic restrictions. What the research also shows is that the pandemic has not hit us all equally. People living in long-term care homes, low-wage workers, women, and people of colour have been disproportionately effected.

A CBC article that provides detailed coverage of the report notes that “seventy per cent of Canadians who responded to a recent Statistics Canada survey said they were concerned about maintaining social ties, while 54 per cent of respondents with kids said they were very or extremely concerned about their children’s loneliness or social isolation.”

The CBC report also notes that: “Efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 through social distancing and shutdowns have kept the Canadian caseload relatively low compared to other jurisdictions globally. But the overall health of the population has deteriorated over the last eight months, with more people turning to drugs, alcohol, tobacco and screen time over physical exercise to cope with the stress.”

With so many people struggling and suffering what are we going to do as a community to help each other get through? I have two ideas. Early in the pandemic I did a daily Facebook live address to give a COVID-19 update. Each day we would profile some of the amazing efforts happening in the community, and there were so many! People planting gardens for those who were food insecure. Seniors helping seniors. Youth helping seniors. Addressing youth mental health through poetry workshops. Online house concerts. The Times Colonist Rapid Relief Fund and $6 million raised in a short time to help those struggling. In the early months of the pandemic our community was overflowing with empathy-turned-action.

Let’s do it again! As pandemic fatigue sets in, as winter sets in, we need to rally as a community to take care of each other, to take care of the most vulnerable among us. Last night on our block there were three small outdoor Halloween gatherings. This has never happened before. It felt so good to sit in a socially distanced circle with my neighbours and to hear about how everyone was doing, what their struggles are right now. This is just one small example of an action to take. There are probably literally hundreds of things that each of us can do in our daily lives to buoy and support our friends, neighbours, co-workers and at the same time lift our own spirits a little. Please email me (mayor@victoria.ca) some of the inspiring things you’re doing or seeing where people are taking care of each other, and I’ll share them on my blog in the coming weeks.

My second idea is even simpler: take a walk, run, wheel, ride, skateboard, etc along the new waterfront walkway on Dallas Road.

This CHEK news story shows how much people already love the new space!

This may go over better as an order from Dr. Henry than as a suggestion from me, but I’m making it anyway! It’s free. It’s outside. There’s lots of parking if you need to drive there. It’s flat, smooth, accessible. We’ve solved the dogs-off-lease issue for seniors and others who were scared to walk near large bounding dogs; there’s now one area for dogs off lease and a whole separate walkway for others. It’s so inspiring to be down there. And it’s good to remember that even though we are going through a really stressful, awful global health pandemic, we can breathe in the ocean air and take in the views. I feel gratitude to live in such a beautiful place. Please send me (mayor@victoria.ca) your pictures enjoying the waterfront walkway and I’ll share them on my blog in the coming weeks.

With gratitude,

Lisa / Mayor Helps

Decampment update, questions addressed, birthday messages and new affordable housing units approved – mayor’s sunday email – October 25 2020

Community Wellness Alliance Decampment working group work plan.
This is the Community Wellness Alliance Workplan.

Hello everyone,

Thanks to those of you who have emailed me this past week with questions, thoughts and suggestions on sheltering in parks and related issues. We’re still receiving quite a few emails on this topic, so I’m writing all of you back together. If you’d like to stay in touch and stay updated on progress on a weekly basis, please follow my blog here as I post these emails there as well.

These emails tend to be long, as there are always lots of good questions to address and also information to share. To make it easier to navigate, I’ve created sections. Please just scroll to what interests you. First I’ll give a decampment update. Second I’ll address your questions and comments. Third, I have some birthday wishes. And finally, I share a press release from Friday about new affordable and supportive housing units in the city. If you do feel like skipping through the email/post pretty quickly, I’d encourage everyone to at least read the birthday section.

Decampment Working Group Update
I’ve been writing about the Community Wellness Alliance Decampment Working group for many weeks now and giving updates in Sunday emails on our progress. One of the members of the public who spoke with Council at our meeting last Thursday asked if we could make public the minutes from the weekly Decampment Working Group meetings. We don’t take minutes, per se. Each week we review the work plan, report in on priority actions – who has done what in the past week, and what will we each commit to doing next week. I’ve shared the work plan with all of you here so that everyone knows that there is good, hard, earnest, weekly work going on to move people from outside to inside as soon as possible.

Last week in the Decampment Working Group update section of my blog post, I outlined a plan for how we will work together to move 200 people inside by the end of the year. You can read that here.

This past week we have seen positive media coverage and the community beginning to rally around this goal. Thank you! CHEK shared our ambitious plan and also Steve’s story. He’s been living in an Our Place shelter for three years and he’s ready to move into his own place. CTV spoke with the Executive Director of Our Place and asked if this 200 person bold and ambitious plan was possible. He said yes! The Times Colonist did a great article on the 110 rent supplements available from BC Housing and Island health. And I was interviewed on CBC Thursday to provide more details. Please take the time to listen to the CBC interview. I explain the plan in quite a bit of detail.

A key part of the plan are rent supplements. These are a top-up provided by BC Housing and Island Health to the income assistance rate which makes it possible for people to move from supportive housing into market rental units. There are 110 rent supplements available. And then people can move from parks into the supportive housing units that are vacated.

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. If you know of any vacancies anywhere in the region for November 1st, December 1st or January 1st and would like to help, please email mayor@victoria.ca and I’ll get you connected directly with BC Housing.

This past week one more person moved inside out of a park and into the Therapeutic Recovery Community in View Royal as a result of our work. Since we began in early September, that makes a total of 16 people who have moved inside. We still have a long way to go. The BC Housing representative was not at the meeting Friday so I’m not able to give a report on how many new rent supplement units may have been secured in the past week.

Your Questions and Comments Addressed
Someone has asked how long the rent supplements last and how people will be chosen for these units. Others who are concerned about camping in neighbourhood parks like Oaklands, Pemberton, Wesley, Hollywood, Gonzales, Irving and Regatta landing have asked Council to take these parks off the list of places where people can camp. Others have asked why we don’t designate the large gravel field in Beacon Hill Park as a campground and run it as such, marking out the area for tents; someone else suggested allocating tent permits across the city.

The Island Health rent supplements last as long as people need them. I wasn’t able to get an answer about the BC Housing rent supplements this past week but will next week. As for how people are chosen for these units, everything goes through the Coordinated Assessment and Access (CAA) process run by BC Housing, Island Health and the CRD. In the CBC interview I mentioned above, I lay this out really clearly.

In terms of neighbourhood parks, you can see the conundrum we’re in. Everyone wants camping banned in their neighbourhood park for what I think are really good and defensible reasons. But if we ban camping in all the parks listed above, there won’t be enough places for people to go. And we’ve seen repeatedly that large encampments simply don’t work. But what I can say, is that there has to be an end date set at some point for 24/7 camping in parks. As of last night, we have an NDP majority government that has made significant investments in housing already and committed on the campaign trail to making more and to address the needs of people with complex mental health and addictions issues. As the BC Urban Mayors’ Caucus (which I co-chair) said in our Blueprint for BC’s Urban Future, we need and expect immediate action. In months not years.

Once the new government is seated in the legislature, we’ll begin our work with them again. And, I haven’t given up on Oak Bay Lodge. That 300-bed senior’s facility is sitting vacant while seniors are living in tents in our parks. We’ll work with the new government, and our newly elected MLA Grace Lore, and we’ll put a plan in place, with them, to house the people who are currently living in our parks. And then we’ll end 24/7 camping. We cannot do this alone.

As for the suggestion of setting up an organized campground in Beacon Hill Park, there is a Trust from the 1800s governing the use of the park and as per the terms of the Trust the city can’t organize any activity in the park.

Many of you have written about the complex challenges of mental health and addictions, and have noted that the people living outside with these conditions shouldn’t be moved from park to park or disbursed through the city. One person – that echoes the concerns of many wrote: “There is no easy resolution to homelessness, as these individuals need early interventions, harm reduction, appropriate mental health supports and medical care – which all require sustainable funding from senior levels of government. However, I fail to understand how dispersing this complicated community into Victoria’s greens spaces is in any way an effective solution for them, or for other vulnerable populations like children or seniors.”

Having people living with mental health and addictions challenges living in parks is not an effective solution. That’s why we’re working hard with BC Housing and Island Health through the Decampment Working Group to address this. It’s not good for anyone neither the people using parks for sheltering, nor the people who feel that they can’t use parks because people are using them for shelters. With the pandemic, need for outdoor recreation is more important than ever. So is safe, secure housing. How can you stay home if you’re sick, if you don’t have a home. We’re between a rock and a hard place, and we’re working every day to dig ourselves out.

A resident who has just moved to Victoria from Ontario six weeks ago (welcome!) asked: What is happening with the old Mt. Tolmie hospital property? How could the city assist property owners willing to convert their sprawling bungalows into 2-3 suite homes? Are there any homes with multiple rooms or suites vacant due to students not physically present in UVic off-campus housing?

My understanding is that Mount Tolmie hospital is being held as a space for self-isolation if people who are currently living outside test positive for COVID-19 and can’t stay at home because they don’t have one. With respect to the City making house conversions easier, yes! As noted in the press release below, on Thursday Council passed a series of bylaw changes to make it easier to turn single family houses, into houses with suites. And, we’ve created incentives for more affordable housing in these house conversions as well. The new, hot-off-the-press regulations are here and our planning staff are standing by to assist. It’s very exciting! In terms of UVIC, we approached them earlier this year about potentially partnering to address homelessness. UVIC doesn’t have any off-campus housing, and all their residence rooms are filled as much as physical distancing requirements allow.

Thanks also for your suggestions. Someone shared this video from Los Angeles about modular housing. These are units that can be built more quickly than conventional construction; once complete they look like regular apartment buildings and last a long time. This is something that BC Housing funds. They have purchased two pieces of land in Victoria one on Meares Street and one on Yates Street to build modular housing . Once again someone suggested buying or leasing a cruise ship to house people; this idea keeps coming up. I have passed it along to BC Housing.

Someone wrote: “I recognize your challenge to find suitable accommodation for the homeless. Many years ago on a visit to Vienna, Austria, I was impressed by community gardens that also permitted small residences. These small homes had originally been built as huts to house garden tools but had been permitted by municipal regulations to become permanent residences, some even 2 stories high, all pleasing to the eye. Productive gardens including vegetables & flowers were everywhere. The purpose was to give apartment dwellers an opportunity to garden. Some eventually moved to their gardens. Could this idea
be adapted to meet the homeless situation in Victoria?”

The City has a garden suite program. Anyone with a single family home can build a suite in their backyard. A few years ago Council significantly cut the red tape to make it easier to for homeowners to do so. There is no longer a political process, homeowners follow the design guidelines set out and work with staff. We also have in our Housing Strategy a plan to allow tiny homes – which are much less expensive to build than a conventional garden suite – in backyards, but we’re not quite there yet.

With respect to showers, someone suggested that the people living outside be tasked with managing a shower program themselves with some support and oversight. They wrote, “Could a possible solution be to see if there are willing and able people within the group of those staying in these places who could maintain the shower and bathroom facilities themselves?  If so, could we explore creating cleaning and maintenance crews from these groups of people.  We could supply all the necessary cleaning supplies and create a schedule. We could also explore if there is an option to compensate them, recognizing of course that this could be somewhat complicated.  I fully appreciate that the homeless, mental health and addiction issue you’re trying to manage is incredibly complex.  I chose to send this email simply because I believe people of all walks and ages do better when they have some level of responsibility, or job or purpose.”

The showering issue is difficult and we haven’t managed to figure it out yet. But the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness and other service providers and advocacy groups are working with people living outside to see how something like this might be possible.

Two Birthday Messages
This past week, in two very different ways, two birthdays were brought to my attention. The father of child turning seven this weekend wrote to me and said he had to move his child’s birthday party from a small neighbourhood park because there were people camping there, close the playground. Bylaw said they’d attend to ensure that the new rules (8m space between tents and playgrounds) would be followed. But it’s a very small park and the father felt that it would still be better to move the birthday party. He wrote that of course the party can’t be indoors because of the pandemic, but it also now can’t be in his neighbourhood park. It was a kind email, but also shared frustration and sadness about the city’s inability to deal quickly with this complex situation. I wish the seven-year-old a happy birthday and I hope that they and their friends had a good time. I thank the dad too for writing to us, to share this story.

This weekend marks another birthday. Today is Michael’s 44th birthday. He’s currently living in Oaklands Park. When the City’s new bylaws came into effect, essentially limiting the number of people in any one park, he made the first move from Central Park to settle elsewhere to test the neighbourhood reaction and win them over before slowly bringing in others he felt needed to be somewhere quieter. Two of the oldest guys – both 70 years old – who had been living in Central Park moved with Michael to Oaklands Park.

When he set up there, Michael established the sentiment of respect and quiet and cleanliness in Oaklands Park and it is currently being upheld by those living there. As of Friday night there were six tents and two bike trailer structures with 8 men and one dog. Two weeks ago there was no one camping there. Because of the tone that Michael set, the older folks are still in the park daily for pickelball and teens are still playing street hockey at end of Shakespeare Street.

Michael works every day, as a flagger on construction sites. When he gets “home” he invites people to throw Frisbees in the sports field in the afternoons and to talk and play chess at night. According to the resident who shared this story with me, Michael is the emotional glue that brings love and belonging and community to the park he’s living in. To Michael, deep thanks and Happy Birthday. I’m sorry that you have to spend your 44th birthday living in a park.

We can and must do better as a city, region province, and country. Winter is coming, it’s cold out there this weekend. We can and must do better. We’ve got to get at least 200 people inside by the end of the year, and we’ve got to work to help the rest who are currently living outside very soon. We must do this so that seven year olds can spend their birthdays in the park and so that forty-four year olds don’t have to.

With gratitude,

Lisa / Mayor Helps

Council Approves 72 New Affordable Housing Units  
Date: Friday, October 23, 2020For Immediate Release

VICTORIA, BC — Last night, Victoria City Council approved a total of 72 net new housing units for low-income and vulnerable residents at two properties located at 330 Michigan Street in the James Bay neighbourhood and 736 Princess Street in the Burnside Gorge neighbourhood.

The new affordable housing development on Princess Avenue will be owned and operated by the Victoria branch of the John Howard Society and will remain rental and affordable at very low-income levels for at least 60 years. The John Howard Society strives to build safe and inclusive communities by helping vulnerable people achieve greater independence so that they can change their lives. 

“This project is more than simply supportive housing. It brings job readiness and life skills training, counselling and supportive housing under one roof to enable clients to become contributing members to their community. Our approach speaks to the principle that the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members,” says Manj Toor, Executive Director of the John Howard Society. “We’re grateful to Council for approving this project and giving us an opportunity to not only support people to have better lives but to enrich our community at the same time.”

Some of the innovations and amenities at this new building include a ground floor coffee shop and art gallery that will operate as a social enterprise and provide an opportunity for the John Howard Society to implement their employment readiness program and allow local artists to showcase and sell their art.  In addition, approximately 46 percent of the total floor area will be dedicated to commercial and community services that will add jobs in the neighbourhood and offer employment training and community services for residents and clients who are supported by the John Howard Society.  

“This is another important step forward to providing people options for a roof over their head and a safe secure place to call home,” said Mayor Lisa Helps. “I also appreciate the John Howard Society leading the way in providing five of the 28 units that exceed the accessibility requirements of the British Columbia Building Code and providing such inclusive homes and reducing barriers for people.” 

The current affordable housing complex on Michigan Street is owned and operated by the Capital Regional Housing Corporation (CRHC) and has four multi-family residential buildings. CRHC will retain the heritage building and demolish three old buildings to make way for two new four-story multi-family buildings for a total of 106 units, a net increase of 44. All units within both the new and existing buildings will remain affordable and will provide much needed housing options for Victoria’s lower income earners.

“I have had the pleasure of seeing this exciting project develop through its various stages, and to see it taking its next step to completion is very gratifying for the CRHC,” said David Screech, Mayor of View Royal and Vice-Chair of the CRHC Board. “With this decision, more seniors, families, those in need of provincial assistance and those with a range of abilities will be able to find the stable, secure and quality housing they desperately need.”

Another item that went to public hearing and adopted by Victoria Council last night was new Housing Conversion Regulations. These new guidelines will make it easier to convert houses to multiple units in order to create more rental, affordable rental and affordable home ownership units, while incentivizing heritage designation. 

“We know Victoria needs more housing options, both for renters and homeowners and these changes increase the number of eligible homes that qualify for home conversions,” said Helps. “Hundreds of units of housing have been created since housing conversions were introduced in the 1950s and expanding the program will encourage more rental housing, more affordable home ownership opportunities, and more two-and-three-bedroom units.”

Victoria’s Housing Strategy includes several policies to address housing and affordability in our community and provides guidance for housing policies and initiatives that meet residents’ needs across the housing continuum. This housing includes non-market housing, affordable rental housing, market rental housing, and affordable or entry-level ownership.

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