As province opens temporary housing at Royal Athletic Park and Russell Street, advocates call for dispersed housing and real homes

Local News Provincial

Province, city hope to build permanent housing by 2022

royal athletic park aryze room
Photo by Alec Lazenby.

For some members of Victoria’s unhoused community, the long wait for a roof over their heads is almost over. With temporary housing units almost complete at Royal Athletic Park and Russell Street, BC Housing has begun offering spots to those sheltering in parks around the Capital Regional District (CRD). Those offered spaces at Russell Street began moving to their new temporary housing between May 3-5. The tiny houses at Royal Athletic Park will be ready in mid-May. 

The units at Royal Athletic Park, constructed out of old shipping containers by Aryze Developments, will house about 30 people. The Russell Street location, in Vic West, will house another 70. The units will be operated by Our Place Society and will provide wraparound services such as mental health and addiction supports.

Despite the opening of new temporary housing spaces, challenges remain. Advocates in the community say the temporary spaces are no substitute for real homes. With the return of the bylaw prohibiting overnight camping in parks, bylaw officers have been directed to enforce restrictions against those who have refused offers of housing. 

From parks to beds

Unhoused people living in Victoria have been promised permanent housing within the next two years by the province. 

BC Housing has been busy buying old buildings, many of them hotels, and developing temporary shelters since last March. Hotels include Paul’s Motor Inn, the Comfort Inn and Suites, and Capital City Center Hotel. 

Despite these efforts, over 200 members of Victoria’s unhoused population ended up in parks around the city, first at Topaz Park and along Pandora Avenue before their closure, and later at Beacon Hill Park, Central Park, and Stadacona Park. This represents only a fraction of the over 1 500 people estimated to be unhoused in the CRD. Community members lobbied for the reinstatement of the Parks Regulation Bylaw, the bylaw that prohibits daytime camping, citing theft, mass littering, and a general feeling of danger. As of writing, just under 30 000 people had signed a petition to “Save Beacon Hill.”

BC Housing says they have already moved 124 people into temporary shelters over the past year at sites such as the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre with the aim of providing them permanent housing by 2022.

Besides wraparound services, each temporary housing unit will provide a bed, communal washroom facilities, and space for two boxes worth of personal belongings. Each site will also provide support services such as mental health and addiction treatment. Some, such as Russell Street and Save-on-Foods, have communal sleeping areas while others, such as Royal Athletic, will be individual. 

royal athletic park
Photo by Alec Lazenby.

Some members of the community remain concerned about the suitability of these buildings and about their concentration in certain neighbourhoods leading to negative impacts for those living near temporary housing sites.

“The buildings themselves just don’t lend themselves to being suitable in the long term for supportive housing,” Elizabeth Cull, chair of the Burnside Gorge Community Association, told the Martlet. “We’re looking forward to permanent housing, affordable housing being built for people beyond just supportive housing for all people who are struggling to find decent accommodation in Victoria.”

Cull says that while she understands the concentration of temporary housing in and around Burnside Gorge, as that is where the hotels are, she would like to see a more distributed model for supportive housing. She says she’s encouraged by the announcement that the newly constructed supportive housing will not be within Burnside Gorge.

“Seeing the recent announcement of where permanent supportive housing is going or none of it is in Burnside Gorge that was encouraging to us,” said Cull.

Following a tour of the units at Royal Athletic, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said  she hopes temporary housing can be used by the province to help reduce homelessness by giving people who lose their homes a place to stay rather than ending up on the street. She especially sees promise in tiny homes to serve as a necessary stopgap measure.

Pathway to permanent housing

While the housing at Royal Athletic and Save-on-Foods is temporary, BC Housing plans to convert the hotels they have purchased as well as 225 Russell Street into permanent affordable housing. 

The province also announced in March that the government, in conjunction with BC Housing, will build 280 units of new supportive housing around the CRD. Construction will begin later this year, with 192 to be built in Victoria across four projects. Three of the projects will be centred around Cook Street and Pandora Avenue while one will be in Vic West. The other two projects will be constructed in Saanich and Central Saanich, totalling the other 88 units.

BC Housing said in the announcement of the new supportive housing that they hope to expedite the process and have all of the units up and running by the end of this year. 

Each site will be run by a non-profit organization which will provide 24/7 support, daily meals, access to life-skills training, employment assistance and counselling, as well as addiction and mental health supports.

Some researchers and support workers, such as Bernie Pauly of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research and the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, say that for many members of the unhoused community, communal shelters, like Russell Street and Save-on-Foods, pose risks such as theft and violence which lead many to refuse the offer of housing in favour of outdoor sheltering.

“It’s often those reasons, feeling unsafe and [needing] shelter, that people will sort of go between two choices, one, which is to be in the shelter where they feel unsafe, or to be outside,” Pauly told the Martlet. “We all always think that, oh people are choosing to camp outside. They’re actually making a choice among very limited choices.”

Pauly says that the tiny house model at Royal Athletic is much more suitable for temporary housing.

“I think the tiny home concept provides a housing option with the potential for community,” said Pauly. “It does provide a housing option where someone can create or find a home.”

A real home

Many members of the unhoused community want a place to put down roots and call their own. Additionally, they would like to maintain the sense of community created at parks such as Beacon Hill and Central Park. Campers and outreach workers worry they won’t be able to have both.

When asked about these concerns, Mayor Helps responded by saying that it is a difficult question and that the concerns are valid, but she hopes that having a roof over their heads, a bed to sleep in, and adequate supports make up for them. 

“What I can say for sure […] is that this is more comfortable and more secure and safer than tents,” Helps said about the tiny homes. 

In regards to community, she said that the tiny homes are specifically geared towards building a sense of it, with a communal meeting area and a community garden. 

The tiny homes at Royal Athletic are unique amongst the temporary housing locations, however, as many of the temporary housing facilities provide little more than a bed in a warehouse-like setting with little space for privacy or community gathering. Additionally, due to COVID-19 restrictions, guests are limited.

Aryze Developments, in designing the units at Royal Athletic, consulted with members of the unhoused community as well as the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness on what ideal temporary housing would look like. It received praise from advocacy groups and the unhoused.

“I think it’s a wonderful proposal,” said Tina Dawson, the director and a resident of the camp at Royal Athletic in place prior to the development. 

Unlike other temporary housing sites, the tiny homes are also going to be run in collaboration with occupants through Our Place Society, thus giving residents a say in how the site is operated.

While the look of the new supportive housing is yet to be revealed, Pauly hopes that it will provide not only the necessary supports but also the sense of community that existed in the parks. 

“The most evidence-based, effective model is that you provide people with the foundation of housing, where they’re afforded privacy, where they’re able to cook,” said Pauly. “I’ve often asked people and said, ‘well, what would you like?’ and they said a place where I could prepare my own meal, I’d like to have my own bathroom, I’d like to be able to have my family over, my parents or my close friends.”

Pauly also cautions that the government not only needs to focus on increasing the available housing supply but also on preventing people from falling into homelessness in the first place.

“If we’re going to actually address this issue of homelessness, we also have to do prevention, which means that we have to deal with issues related to poverty, so that people aren’t falling into homelessness,” she said. “We need to make sure people have an adequate living wage, that there’s housing that people can afford on a minimum income, or that’s affordable on the $375 that people receive from income assistance.”