photos: Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, left, with vendor Evelyn Baron.

A wider perspective on housing solutions

Viewpoints: Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps shares the response she received after asking her community to ‘open their homes’ to aid in the housing crisis

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By Lisa Helps


On June 13, I posted this on my blog at

“In Victoria in the 1940s during WWII, Times Colonist headlines urged Victorians to open their homes and ‘Billet Homeless War Workers.’ Victorians responded to the crisis and opened their homes to strangers recently relocated to Victoria to help the local war effort. They didn’t call it the ‘sharing economy.’ They didn’t charge anything. They just opened up their spare bedrooms and invited strangers in.

“Now we have a different crisis on our doorstep. For 30 years (1982-2012) there were no new purpose-built rental buildings built in Victoria. And, in the last five years, nearly 6,000 people have moved into the city. We’re facing a rental crisis.

What if Victorians responded in the same way to this crisis? What if there was a way to connect people living in vehicles, in motel rooms, on couches, with seniors living in large houses all alone, with retirees with an extra bedroom, or even with families with large houses and extra rooms. Unthinkable? Victorians stepped up to help their neighbours in the past.

“Interested in exploring the idea further? I’m working with a group of citizens and businesses to develop one possible solution.

We need three people currently living in vehicles, on couches, in woodsheds (yes I have heard that this is true in more than one case) AND three people who might be willing to open their homes.

“We’d like these six people to join us for a short focus group session. There is no commitment required other than sharing ideas. We want to build a solution for the people who will use it—for those looking for a place to stay until the rental crisis subsides and for those willing to billet someone.

“Please email [email protected] if you’d like to help us out. And please share this post!”

The response
The post was shared far and wide in a couple of different ways. The first was not exactly in the way I intended.

Before I knew it, I was getting angry emails from people as far away as Ontario calling me all sorts of names and asking how I could possibly suggest that seniors invite people with mental health issues and addictions into their homes.

It got personal and ugly, misogynistic, and homophobic.

Once again, it was revealed to me that although it’s not seen as okay anymore to make blatantly racist, sexist, or homophobic comments, or to refer to “those people,” it’s still seen as okay to do this when it comes to people who are poor.

The people who are living on our streets and in our parks in as prosperous a country as Canada in the 21st century experience this prejudice every day.

But something else happened too, and it was what I hoped for. Within hours of the blog post going live, our focus group was full. And what surprised and delighted me most is it was the homeowners who were the first to get in touch. The senior couple who had taken in a man their church connected them with and who had been living with them for a year. Another couple who had taken in a struggling family. A young immigrant woman who had a spare room and was interested in learning more.

Joining forces
We invited everyone who indicated an interest—those housed and those without housing—to sit around a table at city hall and have a conversation.

What would a solution to home-sharing with a stranger in need look like? What would need to be in place from the perspective of those opening their homes? From those moving in temporarily?

Those looking for temporary housing wanted to know something about the person or people they’d be moving in with—to have a profile of that person with a real picture and some references. They also wanted to know what type of house it was—quiet or loud, whether the homeowner was a night person or a day person, whether it was allergy friendly, what were work schedules of household members like? What are the expectations in terms of accommodation? Would they share a bathroom? What about cooking? Would they share meals with the homeowner? Could they do some work around the house because they couldn’t pay rent? What are the house rules? What about pets? Children? Visitors?

Those opening their homes wanted to know similar things. And they also wanted letters of reference, photo and valid ID, and an opportunity to meet in advance.

Both parties wanted a mechanism to end the agreement if it wasn’t working out.

In an hour, we had all sorts of ideas, answers, and a few more questions.

The tech entrepreneurs among us were tasked with going away with all the questions and answers to see what kind of solution they could develop.

Making it work
What happened around the table at city hall that day was a stark contrast to the social media vitriol from a few weeks earlier. And, in my experience, it’s what usually happens when you convene people in a safe, supportive space to have a conversation: you widen perspectives and you build understanding.

In The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World the Dalai Lama says, “We must look at any given situation or problem from the front and from the back, from the sides, and from the top and from the bottom, so from at least six different angles.

This allows us to take a more complete and holistic view of reality, and if we do, our response will be more constructive ….

When you look at the same event from a wider perspective, your sense of worry and anxiety reduces, and you have greater joy.”

With the housing crisis threatening to overwhelm us on our coast and as a country, we need all the ideas and solutions we can get.

We need to look at the problem from all angles and we need to invite all perspectives to the table and to take them seriously. Only then will we have constructive solutions.

And only then will we build just, ethical, and inclusive communities.


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