photos: A homeless encampment in Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park from 2007 as the BC Supreme Court mulled a decision on whether camping should be allowed in city parks. In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that camping in parks was allowed if no other shelter was accessi

Too radical for Victoria?

Engagement woes threaten housing action plan

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Victoria, a government town known as much for its buttoned-up politicians as for its free-spirit bohemians, has come a long way in recent years. For one thing, it’s no longer a city where “fixed needle exchange” is a dirty phrase.

Today, its progressive city council helmed by activist-mayor Lisa Helps is working to implement a tent city and a micro-housing village. City staff are encouraging council support for the local health authority’s interest in establishing an Insite-style safe drug consumption site, currently nowhere to be found on Vancouver Island.

The tent city and micro-housing village (built to house up to 40 people in self- contained units of less than 500 square feet) are parts of a larger effort to tackle homelessness in Victoria. The City of Victoria’s Action Plan for Housing, Supports and City Services for Homeless People Sheltering in City Parks was created by city staff and passed by council this July. It’s a broad plan for temporarily housing the street homeless population until more permanent housing is available. In addition to a service agency-run tent city, the plan calls for more shelter beds, more rent supplements, funding for supportive and transitional housing, secure storage for homeless people’s belongings, and support for a safe space to use drugs.

Some supporters have described the plan as radical—in a good way—for city council. But the plan has sparked negative reactions from both housed and homeless members of the public, ranging from angry letters to the editor to a late July protest attracting around 300 people opposed to a tent city.

A problem the city could no longer ignore

When the BC Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that homeless people in Victoria could camp in public parks when no other shelter was available, the City of Victoria was forced to take a more proactive approach to addressing homelessness.

A February 2014 survey of transitional housing, shelter, hospital, and jail residents in the Greater Victoria region identified 1,167 homeless people (the count did not include unsheltered homeless). A Megaphone report released later that year found Victoria had the second-highest rate of homeless deaths in B.C. from 2007 to 2013.

Homelessness became a problem the City could no longer ignore. Across the board, Victoria residents are facing a housing crunch: vacancy rates in Victoria hover at 1.2 per cent, rental rates have increased 30 per cent in 10 years, and there are many unofficial tent cities in parks already.

The Action Plan is the City’s answer to the question of “how do we at the same time manage what’s happening in our parks,” Victoria councillor Jeremy Loveday says, “and [find] better waysto shelter those who don’t have houses in the temporary timeframe.”

No part of the plan has been set in stone, though city staff made a list of public parks as possible tent city locations.

But when word got out that Topaz Park was on the top of the list, any public support for the plan was quickly overwhelmed by residents’ outcry over the loss of their park to the homeless community.

“The public reaction has been appalling”

Mayor Lisa Helps later apologized and publicly stated Topaz Park wasn’t a done deal. The Times Colonist has reported that the city plans on holding a workshop for the public, part of a council directive toCity staff that residents be consulted on all options for temporary shelter, on September 16. That workshop would take place before opening a tent city in what they hope will be October. But support levels for at least that section of the Plan have yet to recover.

This could have been avoided, says Marika Albert of Victoria’s Community Social Planning Council, if the city had done more consultation with Victoria residents before deciding on a possible tent city location.

“The public reaction to this has been appalling in my mind—some of the language that’s been used is extraordinarily hateful, calling people who are experiencing homelessness ‘vagrants,’” she says.

“[But] I think part of that was because of the way the whole plan was introduced, part of the way suggestions were made, instead of people in those neighbourhoods being approached and educated or brought along.”

Albert, who is program manager for poverty prevention and reduction initiatives at the Council, acknowledges the City is caught “in a difficult situation.” The City is charged with the difficult task of balancing responses to the ongoing housing crisis and the need to keep public spaces accessible to all.

What’s missing: homeless voices

To produce the Action Plan, City staff worked with the Committee To End Homelessness, a grassroots organization comprised of homeless, formerly homeless, and housed allies. Albert commends the collaboration.

Still, she doesn’t think enough consultation has happened with people living on the streets.

“One of the things that I think is really key that’s missing is the voices of the people who are experiencing homelessness,” she says.

The City has delegated the design and organization of the tiny house village to the Committee, whose members created the Micro Housing Society Victoria specifically for the job. The Society is consulting homeless people about the design and operations of the village, and Loveday says the City plans to consult homeless people, as well as residents and service agencies on the tent city, too.

Kym A. Hines, better known as Hothead, a well-known Victoria anti-poverty advocate and Committee member, says the safe consumption site and storage space are things the Committee asked for.

But not everyone living on the streets likes the overall plan, he says.

“A lot of them don’t want the tent village, they don’t want the mini village, they want to be left alone,” he says, adding the Committee To End Homelessness doesn’t want a large, service agency-managed tent city either. He’s in favour of several smaller tent cities spread across communities. Those, he says, are “way more manageable by police and services.”

The public outcry has been beneficial in a way, Hines says, because it’s forcing the city to re-examine its options.

But Loveday says if the City doesn’t get it right, the plan could die before any tents are pitched.

“If this was to go forward, we would only get one chance, that’s clear, to get this right,” he says. “And that means meaningful public engagement with the neighbourhood and meaningful public engagement with the people who are sleeping in parks right now.”

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