Deadline for ending sheltering in parks pushed back to end of April

May 25 2020-5
Photo by Michael John Lo.

City and province have signed memorandum but questions remain

On March 22, the City of Victoria signed a memorandum of understanding with the Province of British Columbia. With the province running out of time to move the over-200 people still sheltering in parks in Victoria into temporary housing, the city agreed to push the deadline for ending sheltering in parks back from March 31 to April 30. The province has also promised to build 280 units of permanent housing in the Capital Regional District.

In the memorandum, Victoria City Council has agreed to end the 24-hour sheltering allowance on the condition that everyone currently living in parks is given housing by the province. Councillor Sarah Potts says she would like to see the province work with service providers on the ground to make sure people have the support they need.

Despite the promise of housing, outreach worker Thea Hinks remains skeptical of the province’s plan. She is worried that BC Housing will only focus on meeting their quota instead of working to adequately house those currently sheltered in parks. Additionally, with the Point-in-Time count conducted in March 2020 showing over 1 500 people living without homes in Greater Victoria, Hinks says that the 280 units being planned by the province are inadequate to solve the wider problem of homelessness in the region.

Victoria and the Unhoused

The pandemic has affected everyone, however, it has been especially hard on members of Victoria’s growing unhoused community. In response to public health orders, shelters have been forced to close and sites such as those at Topaz and Pandora, the former of which was initially established by the city to provide services to the unhoused during the pandemic, have been emptied. While the city suspended a bylaw in May known as the 7-7 bylaw, which limited sheltering in parks to between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., subsequent motions have limited the areas people can shelter in to increasingly visible areas of parks such as Beacon Hill and Royal Athletic. 

In Hinks’ experience as an outreach worker, she estimates that even prior to the pandemic there were well over 1 500 people living on the streets in Greater Victoria. This doesn’t count the invisible homeless who spend their days couch surfing at friends’ houses or those who have become unhoused or tenuously housed since the pandemic began, as a result of job losses or increased expenses.

The province has worked piecemeal to address this crisis by buying up hotels around the city and commandeering the Save-On-Foods Memorial Arena as a temporary space for moving people indoors. The province has already bought Paul’s Motor Inn and the Comfort Inn and Suites, and is looking to purchase at least one more. Meanwhile, the city is working with a local development company to modify 30 shipping containers into tiny homes at Royal Athletic Park. All told, these spaces can provide temporary housing for over 400 people, with the end goal being to either develop these spaces into permanent housing or else move residents to newly designed permanent spaces.

These initiatives fall well short, however, of housing everyone in Greater Victoria currently living without a roof over their head. Both BC Housing and the City of Victoria have promised to address  homelessness in the region, however, there is still a long way to go to get there in a city with minimal space for expansion and a vacancy rate of about 2 per cent. 

The homeless crisis in Victoria has become a flash point amongst residents with almost 30 000 people signing a petition to end sheltering in Beacon Hill Park due to what they are calling the ecological destruction and belligerence being perpetrated by those living in parks. 

Meanwhile, advocacy groups such as Poverty Kills and SOLID are pushing the government to address the homeless crisis quickly due to the vulnerability that people are facing as a result of the pandemic and the abuse that they are facing from housed members of the community in increasingly visible sheltering spots.

The Memorandum of Understanding

In November of 2020, the City of Victoria passed a motion to partner with BC Housing and the province to end sheltering in parks by March 31, 2021. At the time, over 200 people remained sheltered in parks around the city. 

The new Memorandum of Understanding extends this deadline to April 30, 2021. 

In the memorandum, the city responded to Premier John Horgan’s appeal to end 24-hour sheltering in parks, a policy that he has spoken out against publically in the past. In exchange for sheltering those living in parks, Victoria will re-install the 7-7 bylaw at the end of April. 

Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Housing in B.C., David Eby, said that the collaboration between the province and the City of Victoria will not only work to shelter those currently residing in parks but also to prevent similar encampments in the future.

“We’ve gotten to the beginning of the end of this crisis by working constructively with Victoria on really difficult issues,” Eby said in a press release. “If this agreement helps us keep momentum, we will succeed not just in preventing encampments, but in housing vulnerable people with dignity on an ongoing basis.”

The province has not yet released all the details regarding the sites where people will be housed. In a statement to the Martlet, the province said that they have acquired over 200 spaces and 40 rent supplements to house the roughly 220 people still sheltering in parks in Greater Victoria.

Victoria City Councillor Sarah Potts says that she hopes BC Housing focuses on finding suitable housing rather than just putting them in any indoor space no matter how unsuitable. She would like to see the province work with advocacy groups and other stakeholders on the ground.

“I’m really hopeful that the province and the city will learn from the decampments that we had previously [at Topaz and Pandora] and the negative impacts that direction had on folks sheltering outdoors,” Potts told the Martlet. 

Potts pointed towards the recent initiative at Royal Athletic between the city, Aryze Developments, PEERS, and members of the unhoused community on the development of shipping containers as temporary housing. She said that this is an example of making sure that the needs of the community are met.

“It’s really important to ensure that folks are well supported and working with folks they have relationships with,” said Potts.

Hinks echoed Potts by saying that certain solutions put forward by BC Housing, such as the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre, have proven to be inadequate as temporary housing and urges the province to focus on providing people with real support. 

She says she believes BC Housing will meet the new deadline, but that from what she’s seen, there are a lot of issues with the process they are undergoing.

“They’re going to have to put their feet to the grindstone and push it,” said Hinks. “But there will be a lot of people that aren’t going to like the kind of lifestyle that they’re going to go into, even if it’s temporary and leads to more housing, better housing for them, they’re not going to like it.”

Hinks also says that she’s worried BC Housing will simply work off a quota rather than finding acceptable housing for everyone living in parks. The province has promised to house the roughly 200 people sheltering in parks but whether that means specifically those people sheltering in parks or just 200 people living on the street is unclear, says Hinks.

“As long as they can cover their numbers inside [which] they say they’re going to house, they’re happy,” said Hinks. “No matter if it’s someone that’s been in the park, that person chooses not to go in, oh well, we’ll find someone else.”

Moving Forward with Housing

Along with getting those sheltered in parks indoors, the province has also announced 283 units of supportive housing forthcoming in Greater Victoria. Four out of the six projects will be concentrated within Victoria proper for a total of 191 units while the other two projects will be in Saanich and Central Saanich totalling another 91 units. 

Three of the Victoria-based projects will be centered around the North Park neighborhood while one will be constructed in Victoria West. Construction for these projects is expected to begin between summer and winter of this year with completion expected by summer 2022.

The plan is to move those being sheltered in sites such as the Memorial Centre into permanent housing so that they can work on building themselves up in a secure space. All the sites will have around-the-clock mental health, addiction, and employment assistance. Food will also be provided.

“These new buildings are part of our ongoing work with the City of Victoria and our community partners to make sure people experiencing homelessness will have access to a safe, secure place to live with the support they need to succeed,” said Eby in a press release announcing the project. 

Potts says that she is pleased with the province’s plan to fast-track the process as it is important that appropriate housing is delivered as quickly as possible. 

Hinks, meanwhile, cautions that, despite the progress made so far, there is still a long way to go.

“Two years ago, in 2018, when they did the last homeless count, we had over 1 500 people,” she said. “Now think about those numbers, 1 500, [the province] housed out of Topaz about 300 approximately, then they’ve just housed another 300. That’s only 600 out of 1500 people.”

At the end of the day, the focus is on housing.

 “If we really want people to do well, we need to get them into homes,” said Potts.