Housing

Progress and problems in the plan to house Victoria’s unsheltered population

David Eby and unsheltered Victorians look forward toward a month of turmoil

By Brishti Basu
March 18, 2021
Housing

Progress and problems in the plan to house Victoria’s unsheltered population

David Eby and unsheltered Victorians look forward toward a month of turmoil

By Brishti Basu
Mar 18, 2021
James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Housing

Progress and problems in the plan to house Victoria’s unsheltered population

David Eby and unsheltered Victorians look forward toward a month of turmoil

By Brishti Basu
March 18, 2021
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Progress and problems in the plan to house Victoria’s unsheltered population
James MacDonald / Capital Daily

This article is based on interviews by Jackie Lamport and Emily Vance in Thursday's episode of the Capital Daily podcast.

After living in Beacon Hill Park for nearly six months, Tony Bryan says he’s glad his friends in the community are starting to get housing and shelter spaces.

The 29-year-old volunteers to help others living in the park and is one of the founders of the community care tent. He is currently on the list to get offered housing, but in the meantime, he misses the people who have already left.

“We've had moments of great joy, just like we've had moments of people literally trying to fight each other. We take care of each other, just like we sometimes fight with each other.”

The familial environment he and others describe is starting to change as BC starts ramping up efforts to house every unsheltered person in Victoria by their new deadline of April 30, 2021.

Some people have already been housed, while others, like Bryan, remain when they would prefer to be indoors.

“It’s cool to see a lot of people get housing, but at the same time being left behind is not something anyone wants to be, and that's kind of where I'm at right now,” Bryan said.

The plan had been to house everyone in Victoria by the end of March. Last week, the Ministry of the Attorney General and BC Housing issued a statement pushing their original deadline to the end of April, citing the need for more time to prepare newly acquired shelter sites.

In an interview with Capital Daily, David Eby, BC attorney general and the minister responsible for housing, said the province has secured 220 shelter spaces for the estimated 200 unhoused people in Victoria, but the spaces still need to be retrofitted to make them habitable during the pandemic.

“BC Housing had leads on a number of buildings that were ready to be used for residential purposes—hotels or other types of buildings like that. Unfortunately, BC Housing wasn't able to close on any of those deals at reasonable prices,” Eby said. 

“So, the decision was made to look at spaces that needed more work. And because we had to pursue spaces that needed more work, it resulted in a slightly longer timeline.”

These 220 shelter spaces include temporary housing facilities like the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre and 30 tiny homes built out of shipping containers at Royal Athletic Park. The spaces will include health-care services offered by Island Health, mental health and addiction support, meals, and basic sanitation including showers and laundry facilities.

The plan over the next 12 to 18 months is to move people out of temporary shelter spaces and into supportive housing units—3,000 of which are opening up across the CRD over the next two years, according to Eby—based on their needs. These are meant to be permanent housing spaces. 

Victoria city Coun. Stephen Andrew tweeted on Wednesday that 52 unsheltered people were already moved indoors on March 15 and 16. 

‘More of a family than their own families were’

While many people living in tents and vans at Beacon Hill Park are happy to have indoor shelter spaces available to them, the resounding opinion is that strict rules at congregate living settings create a new problem not faced in the park: loneliness. 

Stephen, a 69-year-old man who lived in a van for eight years, was recently parked at Beacon Hill before he was offered housing.

“It's a new project that I'm at,” Stephen said. “The building itself is actually, in some ways, amazing. But it's four walls, and I'm alone, and those four walls fall in on me.”

After nearly a decade of living the life of a wanderer, Stephen says he found his community at Beacon Hill Park. Moving into a self-contained apartment has also meant moving away from that community and being forced to contemplate the traumas he endured in his childhood alone. 

Now, Stephen is searching for a group where he can discuss his inherited intergenerational traumas. But until then, he fights his COVID long-hauler symptoms—Stephen contracted the virus back in April 2020 but still experiences shortness of breath—to regularly go back to Beacon Hill Park to be with other people in his newfound community. 

The prospect of being alone and separated from this community is enough to make some reject housing offers altogether

Donna White lives in her van at Beacon Hill Park and uses the vehicle to drive other unhoused people wherever they need to go—the bank, the laundromat, appointments, etc.

Based on what she has heard from people living in temporary housing units at motels and at the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, the experience is less than appealing.

“They hate the arena. There’s no privacy. It’s a farce,” White said. 

“As far as the motels go… here's people that are so used to having a community… and they're not allowed to have any company. You are segregating them.”

White says she has lived in a house for most of her life—her house was where she raised her children, and she now has grandchildren. But White says she would never go back to how she lived before for fear of losing the kind of community bonds formed at the park.

“A lot of people haven't got this much camaraderie with any family members. And this is one thing everybody was saying: this is more of a family than their own families were,” she said. 

Once the April 30 deadline has passed, sheltering at parks will go back to the pre-COVID era where unhoused people were only allowed to pitch tents there between 7pm to 7am each night. 

While the province hopes for a smooth transition, those who are currently unhoused expect it to be a chaotic time and warn that people who lose their housing after the

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deadline will have little to no support.

“People are still being kicked out of apartments. There's no place to go, so they're still going to end up in a tent somewhere,” White said. “There's more coming.”

Multiple routes to housing

According to Attorney General Eby, the province is also offering 50 rental supplements in addition to the 220 shelter spaces they have opened.

“The way this works is it tops up people's rents... so that they can move out of supportive housing into the private rental market, because they've stabilized, they're managing their addiction or managing their mental health,” he said. 

For his part, Bryan is concerned about the non-linear nature of recovery for those who live with mental health and/or addiction challenges—people who may relapse or have new challenges—and might not be able to pay for housing spaces once they eventually move into a unit that charges rent.

Once the location of the new shelter spaces is announced within the next few weeks, Eby believes housed residents in Victoria will support the development.

Mainly, he believes people in Victoria are tired of seeing tents and hearing news about fires, assaults, and deaths at encampments, but that they understand the correlation between opening new shelter spaces and moving unhoused people inside, which is why many encourage the move.

Beyond offering housing and rental supplements, Eby says the province has appointed a committee of cabinet members—himself, the minister of health, minister of social development and poverty reduction, and minister of children and family development—to work on ways to prevent people from becoming unhoused in the first place.

“We're all working together to identify… where the opportunities are to intervene to prevent people from becoming homeless, when they're released from hospital, when they're released from prison, when they're aging out of care, and the supports that we need to put in place to prevent the growth in the homeless population,” Eby said.

For now, the minister says he is confident BC Housing and the City of Victoria will be able to meet their new deadline to house everyone currently experiencing homelessness in the provincial capital. 

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