May 12, 2020
Or will pandemic-induced debt just make it worse?
AS OUTREACH WORKERS tick names off lists of campers at Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue, trying to bring order to the hurried plan to move homeless people into hotels, others are drifting in to the area, hoping to be included in the relocation.
Although Topaz and Pandora, with about 360 people, are the outward face of homelessness in Victoria, tents can be found scattered around Beacon Hill Park, along side-streets, and outside Rock Bay Landing shelter.
The shifting numbers are among the complications faced by the Coalition to End Homelessness and its partners as they conduct assessments before moving people into hotels, where they can practice physical distancing and self-isolation, in an effort to stop COVID-19 from gaining a toehold in the homeless population.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said in an emailed statement that efforts are being made to reach as many people as possible.
“We’re working across government and with all partners to implement extraordinary measures to protect everyone in BC from the risks of two public health emergencies—the fentanyl poisoning crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re working on an accelerated timeline to keep people safe and connected to the care they need through these crises and beyond,” she said.
It is uncertain how many people in Greater Victoria are in need of homes. Some are newly homeless and others, who were previously living under the radar, are finding it difficult to make a living from binning, bottle collecting, the sex trade or panhandling in today’s era of closed shops and restaurants.
“The numbers are crushing,” said Reverend Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society, one of the partners in the relocation effort.
“It is going to be difficult for the Coalition to End Homelessness to house everyone. They’re going to do their best, but to do it in this short time is extremely difficult,” he said.
Reverend Al Tysick of the Dandelion Society
The last homeless count found 1,500 people in Victoria without stable housing, but, over the last year, Tysick has seen a spike.
“Rents have gone up, people have been kicked out and they haven’t been able to find a place. [Rents are] well over what we’re paying on welfare and disability,” he noted.
Numbers then bumped up again this spring after shelters were forced to reduce capacity when they could not maintain the prescribed pandemic distancing.
The Province, under the Emergency Program Act, has leased 324 rooms in five hotels in Victoria and set up a 45-bed emergency response centre at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre. On May 10 the ministry website showed 106 people from Topaz and Pandora had moved to new accommodation.
However, it has been difficult finding experienced staff to provide wrap-around supports and sufficient spaces in Victoria. Shane Simpson, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction has extended the deadline for moving people from Topaz and Pandora from May 9 to May 20.
“While we have been working with the hotel sector and service delivery partners towards the May 9 target in Victoria, it is now clear that more time is needed to ensure each person leaving Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue is moved into the accommodation that best meets their needs,” Simpson said in a news release.
“No one will be asked to leave these encampments without being offered a suitable temporary housing option,” he said.
Simpson also acknowledged that there are people outside Topaz and Pandora who need housing help. “We are not ignoring them. This discussion will continue,” he said,
In total there are more than 2,750 spaces across the Province for people without homes, according to BC Housing.
Apart from the immediate problems of finding space for the fluctuating number of homeless people, the major question is how they will all be housed once the pandemic is over.
The Province and City of Victoria have pledged that, after the three-month contract with hotel owners is up, no one will be forced back into homelessness.
There is speculation that the Province could buy some of the hotels, which were almost empty after tourism ground to a halt. Advocates are also pushing for construction of modular housing, spread through southern Vancouver Island communities, while the provincial emphasis is on the goal of building 4,900 new supportive homes in BC over the next decade.
“That work will happen in the weeks and months ahead, but the priority now is on the immediate health and safety of people experiencing homelessness in these public health emergencies,” said an emailed statement from a Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing spokeswoman.
In Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver, where 261 people had moved by May 10, activist Chrissy Brett, a veteran of Victoria’s 2015/2016 courthouse lawn camp, was fielding numerous questions about potential housing from camp residents.
Like other advocates, she believes that, provided adequate supports are in place, the plan to move people into hotels or community centres will help. But she worries about those left out or those dealing with past trauma and addictions who are unable to adjust to life in a hotel where there are rules to be followed.
Activist Chrissy Brett
A possible model would be a type of refugee-style camp run by organizations such as the Red Cross, Brett suggested. “It’s not that I’m advocating that tent cities are where it is at, but, if you look at San Diego or San Francisco or Seattle, they are now creating these sort of camps,” she said. “They are made to live in with showers and bathrooms and everything people need to live properly. Why are we not looking at those as short-term measures?”
Brett would also like to see housing for Indigenous people, seniors and those not battling addictions made available at sites such as Woodwynn Farm, the Central Saanich property bought by the Province in 2018 for use as a therapeutic recovery/training centre (it does not offer housing on site).
Tysick would love to believe that, after decades of neglect, the homelessness problem is about to be solved.
But realism kicks in.
“I am waiting to see this magic wand,” said Tysick, pointing out that, for decades, the problem has been ignored or, at best, chipped at around the edges.
“Let’s be really clear the only reason this is being done is COVID-19. Period. End of story,” he said.
But, when this crisis is over, will attitudes and political will have changed?
Tim Richter, president and founder of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, said modern-day homelessness was created by federal government policies in the late 1980s and 1990s.
“It wasn’t on purpose obviously, but it’s a product of the policy choices that were made when the federal government withdrew from affordable housing investments almost completely and cut social transfers (to the Provinces) that funded welfare and health care,” Richter said.
Tim Richter, president and founder of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness
Now, organizations working to fix the problem need the support of the provincial and federal governments and a more ambitious, more aggressive investment in housing than Canada has seen in recent decades, he said.
Change will come if the public demands it, Richter believes. “We are in a really unique window of time right now where the public is feeling what many people experiencing homelessness feel. They feel isolated and they understand that housing is healthcare, so they are much more empathetic to the plight of people experiencing homelessness,” he said.
“In a crisis like this, things that, on a policy basis, may have seemed a little crazy a month ago, aren’t crazy any more. I think big, bold changes in social policy are possible,” he said. This is the time for people to speak out, Richter said.
“Canadians need to say we are not prepared to accept homelessness of any of our neighbours as inevitable and we’re not prepared that people should be at this sort of risk from a pandemic for no other reason than they don’t have a place to live,” he said.
However, there is a possible flip side to government attitudes post-pandemic, said Tysick, who wonders what will happen when bills for the Canada-wide pandemic financial aid start to roll in.
“Look at the amount of money the government is putting out for COVID across the country, not only for homelessness, but for unemployment and business and other initiatives,” Tysick said.
“I am proud of our governments for doing it, but, once it’s over, will they say ‘yes, let’s build two or three buildings for 400 people.’ I don’t think so. I think we are going to be hearing about the debt and how difficult it’s going to be to pay off that debt for the next 10 years,” he said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith