Homelessness
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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

‘Tale as old as time’: Debunking pervasive myths about homelessness in Victoria

Seven frontline service providers offer insight into why there seem to be “new faces” on the streets

Homelessness
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

‘Tale as old as time’: Debunking pervasive myths about homelessness in Victoria

Seven frontline service providers offer insight into why there seem to be “new faces” on the streets

A homeless encampment at Beacon Hill Park in December 2020. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily
A homeless encampment at Beacon Hill Park in December 2020. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily
Homelessness
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

‘Tale as old as time’: Debunking pervasive myths about homelessness in Victoria

Seven frontline service providers offer insight into why there seem to be “new faces” on the streets

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‘Tale as old as time’: Debunking pervasive myths about homelessness in Victoria
A homeless encampment at Beacon Hill Park in December 2020. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

Sandy Fisher has been homeless in Victoria since 2016. In the past two years, he's noticed a change in the community.

“There seems to be a lot more hubbub on the block,” Fisher told Capital Daily. “More strange faces hovering around—not strange, but new faces.”

People providing services to the homeless community have noticed changes too.

“I do think that I’ve seen more folks experiencing homelessness than prior to 2020,” said Lacey Mesley, an outreach worker at AVI. “Around 2020 and definitely in 2021, we saw more folks ending up living out of their cars or on the street and weren’t able to pay for rent anymore or maintain their housing.”

A letter to the editor printed by the Times Colonist revealed that members of the public are also thinking about the new faces on the streets. Homeless people have been “pour[ing] in from the mainland,” wrote M.D. Hansen in a featured letter that generated both significant pushback and support online.

Data on homelessness in Greater Victoria does not bear out that assertion. Instead, most people experiencing homelessness have lived in the city for years and have connections to the community. But the temptation to place blame for a local issue on outside factors is strong and persistent.

“That come-from-away myth undermines our collective commitment to actually untangle the Gordian knot of tackling homelessness prevention and addressing existing homelessness,” said Diana Gibson, executive director of the Community Social Planning Council.

The letter writer’s logic, however, is reflected in comments from the Victoria Police Department, suggesting that Victoria has recently received an influx of hundreds of homeless people from Vancouver or across the country.

In November, during a presentation to Victoria council, Victoria Police Chief Del Manak said police officers have recently noticed “a spike of people coming from outside the region” during interactions with the homeless community. Manak acknowledged the department does not have statistics on the issue but claimed officers have spoken with homeless people who said they had come from elsewhere on Vancouver Island, other parts of the province, and even Nova Scotia.

“The reason they came here is because they were unhoused in their community and word got out that if you came to Victoria that perhaps you could be prioritized and be helped,” Manak said. “People have driven here, come by bus, flown here.”

That same month, a VicPD spokesperson told CHEK News that “a few hundred” homeless people have moved to Victoria from Vancouver recently.

But organizations that provide services for unhoused people in Victoria understand the situation differently.

On the ground, the consensus is there has not been a significant migration of homeless people to Victoria from other places. Rather, some of the “new faces” are a result of pandemic-induced initiatives to temporarily move people indoors, while rising costs are forcing more of the city’s most vulnerable residents into homelessness.

Capital Daily talked to Victorians who work with unhoused people to understand the city’s current homeless population, how things have changed since the pandemic, and why more data is sorely needed.

Myth #1: People come to Victoria to be homeless

Those who work closely with the homeless community refute the idea that unhoused people have recently been flocking to Victoria from other parts of the country, or that migration has led to a rise in the amount of homelessness in the city.

“The people that have come here without housing, don’t come here…expecting to be homeless,” said Gibson. “They come here like everybody else: for a job, for family, to access services they can’t get in their home community, to go to school.”

Gathering data on who is experiencing homelessness, and why, can be difficult but understanding the causes of homelessness—and who is most vulnerable to becoming homeless—is crucial to addressing the issue.

Point in Time (PiT) counts provide some of the most detailed data available about homeless populations in communities across BC and are typically conducted every year or two with support from the provincial and federal governments.

In Greater Victoria, the Capital Regional District works with multiple partners, including the Community Planning Council and the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, to conduct the count.

The last PiT count conducted in Greater Victoria was done in early March 2020 and found 1,523 people without homes across the region. Of those, 545 were in transitional housing, 350 were staying in emergency shelters and 270 were unsheltered.

But it’s not just a Victoria issue. Homelessness has been worsening province-wide since PiT counts began across BC in 2018. Of the 23 communities that conducted the counts in both 2018 and 2020 or 2021, only three—Duncan, Port Alberni, and Terrace—saw a decrease in the local homeless community. The number of people experiencing homelessness in BC went up by more than 10% over the two years between 2018 and the counts during the pandemic.

From September to November 2022, See Spring Mental Wellness Coalition helped 44 people find housing in Victoria, and nearly all of them had lived in the city for a number of years, according to See Spring founder Amy Allard. Only one of these 44 was offered a housing unit by BC Housing—all others found shelter after reconnecting with friends and family members in Victoria, according to Allard.

Many people who had been homeless in Victoria for a long time were able to find housing spaces from 2020 to 2021 due to hastened pandemic initiatives to house more people, according to Phillips. However, she said rising housing costs and other expenses have, at the same time, led to more people losing their homes while also making it more difficult to find new places they can afford to live.

“It used to be a few years ago that we really fairly routinely could help people get into rental housing,” Phillips said. “We almost never can help people get into rental housing [now]. Because it's just simply outside their affordability.”

The rental market in Victoria was difficult to navigate long before the pandemic, with a vacancy rate hovering around 1% since at least 2015. Back then, the average cost people were paying for a two-bedroom apartment was $1,128. In 2020, that number jumped to $1,448 and the latest CMHC report from February 2022 found the average people were paying for their apartments was $1,571. The vacancy rate for anything below $1,400 was less than 0.5%.

The numbers are worse for anyone currently trying to find a place to rent. Two-bedroom apartments on the market right now go for just shy of $2,700 on average, according to the December report from rentals.ca.

At the same time, BC’s minimum wage ($15.65 per hour) is far below the current cost of living in Greater Victoria. The hourly wage required for a family of four to subsist in the city is now $24.29—more expensive than Vancouver—driven by rising food prices on Vancouver Island.

Nikki Ottosen, who runs the Backpack Project (a donation-driven organization that provides essential supplies to homeless people in Victoria) added another factor she believes could be pushing more people into homelessness: social assistance and disability payment rates have not kept up with inflation.

“I've met seven construction workers who got injured and couldn't pay their rent and were sitting it out in tents for a while,” Allard said.

While there are a few people living outside who are from Vancouver, frontline workers say this small rate of migration has been consistent over the years and simply mirrors the regular movement of everyone—housed or otherwise—from Vancouver to Victoria and vice versa.

“If you have a job, or you're coming to go to school, or coming to access services, you often will come without having secure long-term housing,” Gibson said. “The challenge now is that in this market, that might be something that turns you into a person experiencing homelessness, but before it wouldn't have.”

UVic students lucky enough to find anywhere to live have been forced into the outlying municipalities, while others have had to drop out or face homelessness.

Historical data backs up the observation that a percentage of unhoused people in Victoria have always been from out of town. The 2020 PiT count found that 12% of homeless people had been in Greater Victoria for less than a year, while 64% had lived in Victoria for five or more years.

Many who do move from one community to another are doing so in search of housing and to access the services they need to manage their disabilities.

“There [are] people that come back and forth from Nanaimo to Duncan to Victoria,” Ottosen said. “They're moving around because they're trying to find support.”

Nevertheless, service providers argue that pointing to homeless migration from elsewhere has always been used to deny the problems in our communities—Phillips called it a “tale as old as time.”

The narrative that homeless people are systematically, deliberately being moved from one community to another is widespread—from nearby Campbell River all the way to London, Ontario—and in each case, there is no evidence to back the rumours.

“It fits with people’s resistance to take on the cause of homelessness in our region and say that ‘This is an outside problem, this is not a local problem, we shouldn’t have to deal with this,’” Phillips said.

“I think sometimes that narrative is influenced by stigma, and… our collective feeling that this is a responsibility that we shouldn't have to bear.”

Myth #2: People come to Victoria to get better services

When the claim is made that people come to Victoria to be homeless, it’s often buttressed by the assertion that better services draw people experiencing homelessness in other places to the city.

At a regional level at least, there is some truth to that belief—Victoria does offer services that neighbouring municipalities do not have, like extreme weather shelters and overdose prevention sites.

“The mental health and addiction supports, they're lacking in Sooke,” said Sherry Thompson, executive director of the Sooke Shelter Society. “Medically-supervised detox centres, we don't have any—we need more local and publicly funded treatment centres.”

In Thompson’s experience, Sooke shelter clients who do not have a connection to the community tend to leave the district for the city after a relatively short time, not finding the support they need locally.

In 2020, about 1 in 20 people who were part of the PiT count said they came to Victoria seeking services of some kind. But that figure is dwarfed by the nearly one in five (18.5%) who said they moved to the city with family.

The narrative that Victoria’s services act as a beacon for people experiencing homelessness does not tell the whole story, according to Phillips. She pointed out that while Victoria’s service offerings may stack up well when compared to neighbouring municipalities, significant gaps remain.

“We still don't have enough supportive housing and shelter spaces for everybody; we still don't have enough outreach services to really provide support to people who are living outside,” Phillips said. “We still don't have proper hygiene and basic necessities and services for people who are living outside. It’s a really tough go if you’re living outside.”

Victoria does not have enough shelter beds to accommodate everyone and existing shelters can fill up before noon, especially during bad weather. The gap for low-income and supportive housing is also significant. Ottosen estimates that temporary housing sites set up during the pandemic helped about 600 people get off the street, at least temporarily—leaving a deficit of more than 700 units needed to house people counted during the 2020 PiT.

Ottosen does not buy the idea that Victoria—with its tight rental market and sky-high property prices—is drawing people experiencing or at-risk of homelessness, especially when gaps in services persist.

“Victoria is a city that most people cannot afford to live in, and people in extreme poverty, they realize that,” she said. “They're not flocking here for services, because there are no services, and they're not flocking here for housing, because the housing is absolutely outrageous.”

Myth #3: People refuse housing in order to remain homeless

Another misconception Gibson often runs into is the idea that people are offered housing but refuse to accept it, implying they don’t want to be indoors.

An October 2021 blog piece written by former Victoria councillor and mayoral candidate Stephen Andrew, for example, is strewn with references to visibly homeless people who Andrew believed had previously been offered housing and turned it down.

Over the past two years, Gibson, Phillips, and others said there has in fact been a rise in the number of people who want to be housed, but decline housing options offered to them, mainly because the type of housing offered is not always what the individual needs.

“It’s not that they don’t want to go in, it’s that the restrictions make it difficult for them,” Phillips said.

Having to leave behind a beloved pet due to no animals policies, conflicts with other residents or staff due to unresolved mental health issues, and no-guest policies that limit social encounters are all factors that cause people to leave or get evicted from temporary and supportive housing units.

On his blog, Andrew noted an instance in which a couple was offered two separate housing units by BC Housing, and were prevented from visiting each other due to no-guest rules. In the end, his post said, the couple ended up back in tents in Beacon Hill Park.

“There’s so many rules, but there’s so many people breaking the rules…The staff at these places just turn a blind eye to it all,” Fisher said. “For the most part, it’s a toxic environment.”

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, unhoused people and advocates spoke up against moving people from encampments to congregated indoor settings like the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre arena, citing safety concerns and a fear of the virus spreading in cramped spaces. At that point, authorities argued that shelters like the arena served as a pathway into being offered a supportive housing unit.

That pathway isn’t always leading somewhere people want to go. Gibson and Phillips both said supportive housing units in the region don’t have enough people qualified to handle residents’ individual mental health needs.

“There's enough staffing to provide basic support to people but when people are struggling, or have individualized support needs that are more intensive, the staffing expertise and levels aren't often there for that,” Phillips said.

On the other hand, Gibson, Mesley, and SOLID program director Fred Cameron all noted that there are many people who are offered only the same supportive housing facilities as people suffering from mental illnesses, despite not needing that type of housing. Those who lost their homes because of the housing crisis or rising costs, and don’t have mental health and addiction needs, are often unwilling to accept an offer of living in a supportive housing unit.

“Different people need different kinds of supports. To just push everybody into one small group of housing options, the individual living in those places loses the freedom to choose who surrounds them,” Cameron said.

“You can feel a loss of agency, you can feel a loss of capacity to live independently, and manage your own life… I think that loss of agency can be really challenging for people who are actually just looking for a house,” Mesley added.

Overall, the consensus among service providers is that a lack of adequate housing options is creating the idea that homeless people actually want to stay homeless. PiT counts in years past have consistently shown the opposite: in 2020, for example, 92.5% of survey respondents said they want a permanent home.

How data makes a difference

Communities that want to reduce or eliminate homelessness need to have a good understanding of its root causes and who it affects—information that PiT counts provide.

“We can see what some of the factors were that led to people experiencing homelessness, how old they are, how often they've experienced it, how long they've experienced it, and then what their service needs are to come out of homelessness,” Gibson said.

As preparations for this year’s PiT count in Greater Victoria ramp up, Gibson and other organizers are hoping to collect better data, particularly when it comes to “hidden homelessness,” a term used to describe people who don’t have secure housing but do not typically use shelters and other supports. They might be temporarily staying with a friend or family member, for example.

Connecting with people through food banks and via events geared toward groups that are at higher risk of hidden homelessness, such as recent immigrants and Indigenous youth, are some of the ways Gibson and other community organizers hope to gain a better picture of the extent of homelessness across Greater Victoria.

Better data on exactly what kinds of support and services are available—and how many people in need are able to access them—is another area that could use improvement, according to service providers.

When Capital Daily tried to find information about how many people are unable to access local shelters due to lack of beds, BC Housing said it does not track those figures.

“This data would be unreliable for a number of reasons,” the agency said in a statement, explaining that while some people could end up counted twice as they tried to access multiple shelters, others might be deterred from trying to get a bed at all.

Several of the service providers who spoke to Capital Daily flagged the impact of temporary housing rolled out during the pandemic as possibly contributing to the “hubbub” and “new faces” Fisher described. Some of the people who moved inside may now be back on the street, disconnected from the community and services they interacted with before COVID arrived.

Capital Daily requested data from BC Housing on the number of people housed during the pandemic push, as well as how many have since found permanent housing or been evicted. We plan to report further when that information has been provided.

For Gibson, the focus on deflecting responsibility for homelessness takes away from bigger questions of how to better support people who are struggling to find a suitable home.

"The conversation we need to have as a region is [about] how we are seeing households become so vulnerable,” Gibson said, “and how can we do a better job of preventing homelessness in the first place?”

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‘Tale as old as time’: Debunking pervasive myths about homelessness in Victoria
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