May 3, 2020
ANXIETY IS RIPPLING THROUGH Victoria’s Burnside-Gorge neighbourhood as residents hear through the unofficial grapevine that about 80 percent of the more than 350 of those living in tents in Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue will be coming to hotels in their community.
The area, which is home to many families with children, already has two shelters and several supportive housing complexes. Residents have, as a result, experienced fallout from mental health and addiction problems in the past. Recent incidents around Topaz Park, where crime spiked after the camp was set up, have added to their concerns.
Rock Bay Landing, located in the Burnside-Gorge neighbourhood
It’s a delicate balance for both residents and those who have been living in tents since shelter space was reduced because of COVID-19.
While there is widespread support for dismantling the camps, providing adequate housing, and helping those struggling with mental health and addictions, questions are being raised about what help is available to the receiving community.
Residents in the Burnside-Gorge area neighbourhood recently discovered that four out of five sites for hotel relocations are in their area—although, according to Michelle Peterson, no one has reached out to the community to offer specific information or security help.
Peterson, a long-time Burnside-Gorge resident, told Focus, “Every single one of the people I have talked to, no question, agree that these people need to be housed. That is not an issue. It is more the impact and the lack of support for the communities.”
At a virtual meeting that included Island Health representatives, Peterson was told that many of the campers are feeling anxious and uncertain about the move, so will be helped by psychiatrists and mental health experts.
“I told them I am hearing very similar feelings from residents in my community and there’s no supports for them. What are they going to do to support the neighbours?” she asked. Island Health has agreed to take the concerns to their executive, Peterson said.
“This is a crisis and I think everyone understands that, but what people are worried about is what is the plan to help mitigate any negative impact, because we know that there is a percentage of that population who can be quite dangerous. They’re the ones who have active, significant mental health issues or active substance abuse issues or they’re violent to themselves or others,” she said.
Given the crime spike in the Topaz neighbourhood, residents are asking for increased security, possibly additional policing, and assurances that 24/7 supervision will amount to more than someone sitting at a reception desk, Peterson said.
BC Housing is not confirming which hotels in Victoria are providing the 324 rooms, but emphasized that people will be assessed and then connected to wrap-around care including doctors, outreach workers and psychosocial supports. Harm reduction supplies will be provided to people with substance use disorders.
“BC Housing is engaged in active and ongoing conversations with neighbourhood and community associations in Victoria to raise awareness and provide information about our response to the pandemic and how we are assisting those who are vulnerable,” said a Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing spokeswoman in an emailed response to questions from Focus.
“While we typically connect with neighbours and the public prior to new services opening in the community for those who are vulnerable, we recognize the need to act quickly in the current context. The hotels are temporary and will be vital to mitigating the spread of this virus, protecting those who are vulnerable and the broader community.”
Peterson said a BC Housing representative is planning to meet with residents, but, so far, no one has come up with a mitigation plan and the lack of information is creating suspicion and polarization.
“I understand why they don’t want to disclose the location, but, when they don’t provide information to the community and they stay silent and don’t reach out, it creates a significant lack of trust,” she said. “Then what happens is it creates more of a divide, more hostility, more conflict between the neighbourhood and the homeless population which is not what we want,” she said.
By April 30, 51 people had been moved out of camps and into hotel rooms, with the Province paying the tab. The final cost will depend on the length of time the hotels are used, according to the ministry.
The contracts with hotels are below the market rental rate, but are providing income for hotel owners at a time when COVID-19 has brought the tourism industry to a grinding halt.
“We have not forced hotels to accept people. To date, all hotel spaces that BC Housing has secured have been freely negotiated with hotel owners without the use of orders,” wrote the spokeswoman. “These contracts are producing positive outcomes for everyone, including hotel owners, who are getting a fair deal, and their employees, some of whom are being contracted to help operate hotels.” BC Housing has committed to “professional and rigorous cleaning” of all the buildings once the contracts end and will cover the cost of any damages.
However, for Peterson and other Burnside-Gorge residents, the remaining question is how much help the neighbourhood will be receiving.
“There needs to be a plan on how to mitigate the impact in the short term, because we know there are going to be impacts,” she said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith