By Leslie Campbell, January 2016
The encampment at the law courts grounds provides evidence of our collective failure to meet the need for housing.
The homeless camp at the Provincial law courts grounds might be getting most of the attention these days, but the whole latter half of 2015 experienced gusts of action on the homeless front, starting with Mayor Helps’ and Councillor Ben Isitt’s proposal last summer to devote a corner of Topaz Park to a regulated tenting area for the homeless—something angrily rejected by local residents.
Then the mayor hosted a shelter workshop in September with the somewhat controversial idea of paying homeless people $20 to participate; over 350 showed up. Next, she and Victoria council urged the CRD Hospital Board to approve borrowing of up to $30 million towards housing the estimated 400 chronic shelter users in Greater Victoria. After some hesitation, the Board approved the motion in December, conditional on obtaining similar funding from the Province.
Also in December, Cool Aid obtained an option to purchase the old Mount Edwards Court Care Home, hoping to convert it into supportive housing for 100 homeless people. It is seeking government and community funding towards the $9-million cost. Rob Reid, who chairs Cool Aid’s “campaign cabinet,” is optimistic, believing there’s been a “maturing of understanding” about the issue.
Such maturation may help explain why the Province declined to call in the cops to dismantle the camp as it blossomed forth tents and tarps. Instead, when it hit a population of 40 in November, the Province installed three portable toilets and came up with $400,000 for a four-month shelter. The City has now provided a vacant building along with $45,000 to renovate it, and the United Way is putting $25,000 into services.
I VISITED INTENT CITY, as some are calling it, several times in December. There seem to be two huge benefits of the camp for residents: First, it means they can stay in one place and not have to sneak around in the dark to set and break camp. In City parks, a bylaw allows camping only from 7pm to 7am—and that right was only clarified after a long legal battle. It’s hard for us non-winter campers to fully appreciate the difficulties implied in the bylaw. Sherman Sherwood says it’s so dark at 7am during winter that he often loses crucial belongings—a hammer, some rope for his tarp—simply because he can’t see them. Another camper, 61-year-old Doug, tells me he’d been sleeping in local parks including Beacon Hill for years now despite his arthritis and police harassment. But packing up and getting on the move before the 7am curfew is “just too much.”
The second blessing the residents enjoy—and probably the most important—is community. Instead of being alone in some bushes in the dark, they are together, making connections and decisions about how to conduct their lives together and also in association with the wider community; they are interacting and feeling part of something bigger. It’s safer as well. One camper’s life was saved by his neighbours when he overdosed.
Intent resident Chris Parent, who had been sleeping outside without even a tent, using cardboard and finding places “slightly secured from the elements,” prefers to be outdoors, “as close to nature as possible.” But the camp allows him to also be in a community. “It’s full of good people,” he says. “Their lights are beginning to shine a little bit more,” because of the help they are giving each other.
Joseph Reville, too, says, “This is kind of awesome because we’re learning to connect with each other. Not every one is on the same page,” he admits. “Drugs are a part of what’s out here…Without the security of a home and all the good things that come with it, it’s easy to slip really quick…and people [on the street] have no way to hide their addictions.” Reville is in recovery from an addiction to hard drugs. He lives in the “clean” zone of the camp and for the most part it’s working well. After a stabbing and fatal overdose in late December, however, he hinted he’d be happier if the hard drug users left.
Reville is one of Intent City’s residents who are “trying to raise a voice for housing.” An artist, Reville’s been homeless off and on since 1994. Bed bugs drove him out of his last home. He views the camp as providing “a platform for a long overdue conversation in Victoria” and is excited by the possibility of developing a template for other cities.
Reville thinks clusters of microhousing on public lands would be ideal. “They could have cool little themes, different flavours to go along with the neighbourhoods they adjoin. Microhousing could be a tourist attraction,” he says. What’s needed in general, he says, is “out of the box thinking …and something that doesn’t take two years to implement. There are buildings all over the city sitting vacant. Let’s restore some heritage buildings and some old real estate and get people housed and start some crazy programs. What if we handed over some of the jobs to people who wanted to transition from [street life]…cleaning parks, removing graffiti…we’re capable.”
Don Evans, executive director at Our Place, at one of Intent’s daily morning circle meetings, updates residents on plans for the new shelter. He mostly listens, assuring the campers he wants to work with them. Some who speak at the circle are adamant about staying out of shelters. They’ve had bad experiences. They cite the drug users and dealers—“triggers” for their own addictions.
Later, at a press conference announcing the location of the new shelter, Evans says the campers will select who goes into it. It will be open and staffed 24 hours a day, meaning residents won’t have to worry about packing up or losing their belongings. Meals will be provided. Tents may be set up to provide private spaces. Pets will be allowed. There will be a lounge area, TV and showers. Security will be put in place. Some residents will get hired to do some of the work.
As far as shelters go, it sounds like an out-of-the box approach—but it is only for four months.
And many are disinterested in going into this or any shelter. For himself, Reville dismisses shelter use as “a merry-go-round” instead of real progress towards stable housing.
Given Victoria’s .6 percent vacancy rate, he says, a lot of workers are ending up homeless. “This city runs on blue collar workers…my tent mate wakes up everyday at 6am and trucks off to Sidney to go work in a café.”
Kathryn, on the other had (she prefers to not publicize her last name), will forego any shelter because she likes living outside. A veteran of the street at 60, she has raised children she’s proud of and operated a business in the past. She tells me she initiated the camp after setting up her tent there for four days and realizing no one had asked her to take it down. “It doesn’t belong to the City—it’s Crown Land. I was jubilant,” she recalls. She viewed it as a way to help her street community come together. However, she now feels it’s grown completely out of her control, with too many young people who “haven’t worked things out” moving in. “It’s become something I didn’t envision,” she says.
She’d like to create a small community of about 30 people on some acreage outside the city, basically a campground with hookups for electricity. The 30 could pool their housing allowance ($375) to lease the land, create a garden and a common kitchen house. She’s actively looking for the ideal site.
But Kathryn is worried about those who are not doing well outside. Besides those in the camp, city parks and doorways, she tells me there are a lot of seniors living in their cars in Victoria, isolated, afraid of exposure, and too proud to ask for help.
REVEREND AL TYSICK of Victoria Dandelion Society characterizes the 40-bed shelter as “a political smokescreen.” He notes there are 80-100 people in the camp and another 200 on the street. The total 370 beds or mats offered by local shelters are full. “The answer is housing and the government knows it. A new shelter is not even close to a real solution,” says Tysick. What’s being offered by the Province, he says, amounts to “the crumbs that fall off the rich man’s table.” He points to the abandoned Central Care Home on Johnson Street with 147 rooms—“the government could buy it and move people in tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, Cool Aid is trying to do something along those lines for 100 homeless at the old Mount Edward care facility. But the “Dr. Joe Haegert Centre” will need both government and community support. It has raised $1.5 million from donors already and is aiming at another $500,000 in donations by the end of March and is applying for the balance from municipal, regional and Provincial governments.
Government involvement in providing housing is essential. Victoria has the lowest vacancy rate in Canada. That and BC’s low minimum wage ($10.45/hour) and social assistance rates ($527 for a single adult) point to obvious structural barriers to finding people stable housing in the private market. Even rent supplements (part of the mix these days) are seen as a band-aid. Stephen Portman of Together Against Poverty Society points out landlords have legions of people to choose from so are unlikely to rent to those showing up pushing a cart and looking rough, without references or with a criminal record. And subsidized housing in the CRD has a waitlist of 1500. The picture is not encouraging. Budgets for all levels of government suggest their priorities lie elsewhere. (Think bridges and sewage treatment locally.)
INTENT CITY RESIDENTS enthuse about the kind-hearted Victorians who have visited and donated food and other supplies. One day when I visited, a group of students from Reynolds Secondary came with their teacher to deliver hot baked potatoes (donated by Galey Farms and cooked by the students) wrapped in foil. They were a big hit. Chris Parent says he has actually gained weight because so much healthy food has been provided by Victorians. He tells me of Janice and her husband who decided to give up their personal Christmas in order to help the campers.
Then there’s neighbour Dale Seibel who, at one of the daily circle meetings, announces he is organizing a hot lunch as well as blankets from a Downtown hotel. He had already rounded up donated goods from businesses in Cook Street Village.
At the same circle meeting, Kelsey, a graduate student at UVic, consults with the campers on a wishlist that university students and faculty can supply. Mary from Christ Church Cathedral checks in, reminding campers of the pre-Christmas lunch coming up.
Yet, there are also signs of intolerance towards the homeless. The parent advisory council of Central Middle School has expressed opposition to having the new shelter across the street; and worries have been vocalized about Cool Aid’s proposed supportive housing facility being so close to Christ Church Cathedral School.
Another test of acceptance will come when the chosen 40 campers move into the temporary shelter. It’s expected the rest of the campers will be evicted and forced to scatter to city parks and doorways. But the City of Victoria could choose to not enforce (or even rescind) the camping bylaw that criminalizes homelessness. It could recognize that the camp serves its residents’ need for safety and community and provides the rest of us (including the Province) with evidence of our collective failure to address the need for housing for all citizens.
It took Leslie Campbell a couple of days to thaw out after one two-hour visit to Intent City. She admires the hardiness, compassion and intelligence of the people she spoke with there.