BC Housing Plan Deadline Passes, Here’s Why People Are Still In Parks

BC Housing Plan Deadline Passes, Here’s Why People Are Still In Parks

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EPISODE SUMMARY

The April 30th deadline for the province to move all unhoused folks into shelters has not been met. Here’s why people are still in parks and why some campers say they will protest the daytime camping ban coming into effect.

EPISODE NOTES

The April 30th deadline for the province to move all unhoused folks into shelters has not been met. Here’s why people are still in parks and why some campers say they will protest the daytime camping ban coming into effect.

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Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jackie: My name is Jackie Lamport. Today is Tuesday, May 4th. Welcome to the Capital Daily podcast. On Friday, the deadline from the province to move all the unhoused people from Victoria city parks into shelters passed, but there are still people in parks. We look at why that is and what happens next as some campers refuse to leave.

Jackie: April 30th was the day the province had planned to move all folks living in Victoria city parks into shelters. This is a part of a larger plan to move people into permanent housing under the strategy of housing first. That deadline came and went on Saturday. However, the parks are still not empty. Co-producer Emily Vance spent some more time at Beacon Hill Park late last week as the provincial deadline loomed. During her time there, she learned of a potential protest brewing in response to the end of full-time camping. She wrote a story for capitaldaily.ca about where things are now and what comes next, and Emily joins us now.

Jackie: Hi, Emily.

Emily: Hey, Jackie.

Jackie: Okay, so the plan from the province was to have everyone out of parks and into housing by April 30th. How far off is that?

Emily: Well, I guess it depends on your definition of mid-May. That's when the province has identified that the 220 people they've identified camping in parks will be placed in housing. That's what they say. It has been a little bit slow going. The latest BC Housing numbers released by the time we recorded this on Monday, May 3rd, show that 127 of the 220 campers have been placed in housing.

Jackie: Okay, I just want to highlight that the April 30th deadline was already an extension.

Emily: So originally, it was March 31st. The province then moved that to April 30th because they couldn't secure enough indoor space, and now it's been pushed to mid-May. I think it speaks to how difficult it is to find spaces like that in Victoria.

Jackie: What is the situation for the folks who are on the list but have yet to be placed?

Emily: For people who are on the list camping in parks, they can remain camping in parks 24/7, so around the clock. That's contrasted with if you are not on the list or have refused an offer of housing, you will have to pack up your tents or structures at 7 am every morning. The city has drafted a bylaw compliance strategy where officers will work with individual campers to figure out where each person is at and make sure that if someone is waiting for housing, they won't be required to pack up in the park. The bylaw department communicates pretty closely with BC Housing to make sure that their lists are up to date. From what Anthony Bryan, one of my sources in the park, tells me, bylaw officers are very familiar with the campers who have been there for a long time.

Jackie: Does it feel like this new deadline is likely going to be met?

Emily: It's hard to say. Without 124 people having moved into housing already, that leaves about 100 people in the park and 96 people still camping in parks that need to move into shelters. This matches the available space that's coming online in the next two weeks. There is a shelter in Victoria West at 225 Russell Street that was scheduled to open on May 3rd that will house 70 people. Then there's the Tiny Homes Village, the shipping container village built at Royal Athletic Park that is supposed to house 30 people, and that's opening on May 12th. So, provided that everybody moves in within a couple of days of the Royal Athletic Park Tiny Homes Village opening, the province would be on track for a mid-May deadline.

Jackie: Has everybody in the parks received an offer for housing?

Emily: Everyone is supposed to have received an offer as of Monday. When I last spoke to Anthony, they had not received housing, but that was a couple of days ago. Here's David Eby’s answer to that question when I spoke with him last week.

Minister Responsible for Housing, David Eby (audio clip): Everyone in the parks in Victoria should have offers, and if they don't, they should be eminent. We have sufficient space at Russell Street and also with the Tiny Homes development to be able to get folks inside dignified and appropriate housing.

Emily: Last time I spoke with Anthony Bryan, a camper that I keep in regular contact with, they had not been offered housing. We did an interview by their tent, which was in a community of about seven other tents. They said that only one person in that group had been offered housing. That person was a senior citizen. They were offered the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre arena shelter, and they refused. It's very much a fluid situation, and as you heard the minister say, the housing offers should be coming quickly.

Jackie: I want to talk about the Save-on-Foods arena controversy, so we'll get to that a little later. Besides that,  I want to be clear, the number that the government is referencing is not an exact number of the homeless population in the city, right?

Emily: Exactly. That 220, those were campers identified, I think in December, is when I started hearing that number. So, that number is fluid. Obviously, more people are arriving in Victoria, and we hear that anecdotally. Of course, more people are falling into homelessness, unfortunately, because of affordability issues and varying personal circumstances. Then there are people who are moving into shelters. Here's David Eby talking a little bit more about that.

Minister Responsible for Housing, David Eby (audio clip): People shouldn't be under the impression that because we've done this, that they're not going to see someone who's living outside. I'm hopeful they will see a very significant reduction in the number of people outside and certainly camping in parks and steady progress towards more and more folks being inside, and fewer and fewer people being outside over the next 18 months.

Emily: I also spoke with Victoria Mayor Lisa helps who echoed this fact that it's not like we're not going to see people camped out in parks ever again, after mid-May.

Mayor Lisa Helps (audio clip): Everyone who's got offers is on the BC Housing list.  They filled out their application form. I am hearing stories of people coming here thinking they're getting an offer; they’re not. It's the people who have been here living in parks for the past number of months who've registered with BC Housing. At the time, when the province confirmed all of the site availability, there were more than enough spaces for the people who are living outside. So if people have arrived hoping for a space, they might not get one. They're going to need to take their tent down every morning at 7 am or consider going back to where they've come from.

Jackie: Absolutely. When you have a group of people this large, there are bound to be differing opinions. I spoke with Shay Smith, and he’s a pretty familiar voice around this issue. He lived in Beacon Hill Park for a long time, and he's now living in a private room provided by BC Housing. He's still active in advocacy for unhoused people. So he does not want to see this deadline enforced. In fact, he's part of a groundswell of what I would describe as a small protest movement.

Shay Smith (audio clip): If it doesn't work for you, you have the right as a human being to say no. Under Section 7, you cannot be forced by the government to have to put your security in jeopardy. That's the one thing that we're trying to say. You can't force people. If Congress intimidates them with bylaws and arrests, into living in that kind of situation during a pandemic. This is crazy, and it’s inhumane.  

Emily: Given that the campers are a disparate group, it's really hard to say whether or not the protests will come to fruition. Anthony doesn't seem to think so.

Anthony Bryan (audio clip): I think the people here are too complacent to actually fight and hold their ground. I hate being pessimistic, but the slightest sign of resistance, they will buckle. It’s sad to say that. We need more people with more strong wills around here to fight that system and fight that oppression. I feel like the people who should be fighting lack the backbone to stand up for themselves right now.

Jackie: Can you explain a little bit more about the protests? What did you gather about that?

Emily: I started hearing whispers of the fact that there might be resistance to the end of 24/7sheltering, and that's not to be unexpected. In fact, the city is planning for that. It was really hard to get people to talk on the record about it. Shay Smith was kind of the group’s spokesperson, but I did go down to the park last Wednesday, and on last Tuesday night, there had been what the campers described as a sacred fire lit in the gravel pit, just off of Douglas Street. One camper who didn't want to be named told me that they were encouraging people to move down to the perimeter of the park and form some sort of resistance to the end of 24/7 sheltering. The fire has since been put out. It's really hard to say what's going to happen here, especially with the phased approach that bylaw officers are going with. They're not going to be moving in and demanding that people pack up immediately. They're going to be taking a slower approach, so it remains to be seen whether or not protests will come to fruition here.

Jackie: Going back to the Save-on-Foods arena controversy, can you explain a little bit about the response that that specific shelter has got?

Emily: From the people that I've spoken with, there has been a lot of pushback on the temporary shelters, but some people have accepted offers of shelter. It's important to note that in the first iteration of the Save-on-Foods arena, when it first became a shelter last year, they were able to house just under 50 people and then transition them into supportive housing. The arena, in particular, gets a lot of heat from campers. Both Shay and Anthony have said it's an unsafe place. It does form the basis of Shay Smith's largest complaint about the end of 24/7 sheltering. He does not think that it's adequate. Here is Anthony talking a little more about that.  

Anthony Bryan (audio clip): I'm gonna scream to the high heavens. The arena is not a place for homeless people to be because it is an unsafe space and isn’t secure. So if you ever get offered Save-On-Foods arena, tell them straight up. “I do not want this, and this is not a safe space.”

Emily: To be fair, I reached out to BC Housing to specifically address some of the allegations of resident-on-resident violence that campers said they had heard taking place in shelters. So BC Housing investigated the things that I asked, and they weren't able to corroborate those stories. They also invited me to check with their third-party security company, and they told me they take all allegations of violence very seriously.

Jackie: The province has also addressed some of the concerns from people who, in general, think that the spaces being offered aren't private, or they aren't something that would be a long-term solution. What were David Eby’s thoughts on this when you talked to him about it?

Emily: Minister David Eby agrees that the shelters are not permanent homes. In fact, they're not supposed to function as permanent homes, and he empathizes with people who prefer living in a tent.

David Eby (audio clip): I really understand why someone might choose to camp in a park rather than move into our shelter. It's not the same as having your own place. Even if it's a tent, it's still your place, which is why shelters are never an adequate response to homelessness in and of themselves. So what I would say to those folks is, “yes, it's inconvenient, and it's not the same as having your own place, but it is how folks are moving into permanent housing.”

Emily: He also stressed that tents themselves aren’t long-term solutions either.

David Eby (audio clip): Parks are intended to be used as parks; they’re not intended for housing for obvious reasons. There had been a long line of really tragic incidents associated with the encampments in Vancouver and Victoria, and we need people to be in safer places. We need them not to die in their tents, trying to stay warm with heating devices. We need them not to be victims of assault because they're attacked in the middle of the night. We need them not to be using in their tents by themselves and overdosing. To support people and to be safe is why we're offering this. It's not to be oppressive, and it’s to get people into their own homes.

Emily: Just to be clear on the plan, the shelters are a pathway to supportive housing, which is much more of a long-term solution. Those shelters aren't going to come online for 12 to 18 months, and they still need to be built in most cases. David Eby also mentioned that Victoria has been a very difficult place to secure real estate to house beach people, which is part of the issue. I think it's worth noting that these shelters were never intended to be long-term shelters in the first place. The Capital City Centre Hotel that the province just purchased currently functions as a shelter. Eventually, that will turn into affordable housing. Likewise, the shelter that's planned on 225 Russell Street will turn into supportive housing as well. So there is a pathway out of these shelters. It’ll take a while, but the plans are there.

Jackie: This issue is also a bit more complex right now, given that we are currently in two different public health emergencies. Let's start with COVID. Are there concerns among folks about going into potentially crowded indoor spaces?

Emily: There are, and that is the main concern that protest organizers Shay Smith spoke about in our interview.

Shay Smith (audio clip): Imagine what it would feel like to be in these kinds of spaces, and these are the reasons why it's not adequate. The first reason is that it's congregate, and during a pandemic, this is exactly what we want to avoid. They're telling us not to assemble together. So we're thinking to ourselves, if we have to be assembled, if we have to be slammed into one place, we're going to make a stand. We're gonna do this together that we don't want to flattened into congregate living spaces.

Emily: However, Housing Minister David Eby says they have protocols to reduce COVID transmission, including restrictions on guests. Residents of shelters are not allowed to have guests in the space, which has been met with opposition from campers. So, it's really hard to please everybody here.

Jackie: The unhoused community and parks have also been a priority when it comes to the vaccination effort, correct?

Emily: When I went down to Beacon Hill Park for the first episode that we did around the end of March, I did see a pop-up vaccination clinic taking place. There were several Island health workers offering vaccines to anybody who lived in the or was taking shelter in the park. So it was really encouraging to see. So yes, I think it's very important to note that vaccinations have been prioritized for unhoused folks.

Jackie: As for the other public health emergency, what is being done in these spaces to address the overdose crisis?

Emily: That's an important question. I know that the Save-on-Foods arena shelter has an overdose prevention site operated by SOLID, and they have 24/7 staffing. So you know, residents aren't left alone, and they're also not being forced to leave shelters. Some shelters operate where you have to leave them during the day. The Save-on-Foods arena shelter has healthcare services provided by Kool Aid’s inner-city outreach. We know from the episode that we did talking to doctors of BC that regular health care can really help people manage their addiction. It obviously goes so much further than that, but there are clinical wraparound supports at these shelters.

Jackie: What’s next for the campers who don’t want to be housed?

Emily: Campers who have refused housing or recently arrived in Victoria will have to go back to overnight camping only. They may set up tents or temporary shelters and parks starting at 8 pm or 7 pm when Daylight Savings Time is not in effect. They’ll be required to take them down at 7 am the next morning. That's a right that was one in the BC Supreme Court back in 2009. It's probably not changing anytime soon. I asked on a larger scale in terms of what people will do because 7 pm to 7 am or 8 pm to 7 am camping isn’t sustainable for the long-term. Anthony said that he's done it before, and he described it as a horrid experience. I asked Anthony this question, and he thinks that people will eventually move on.

Anthony Bryan (audio clip): I think there's going to be massive immigration to other cities where it’s less strict, and the camping and parks aren’t so bad. Someplace where you can hide in a bush and stuff like that. A lot of people that are talking about ditching out to Fairy Creek. Other than that, people are probably just going to different cities, different towns, and try to live safely. Victoria is nice and close to resources, but it's not safe to shelter if it’s not safe to shelter.

Jackie: And for the city, what’s next?

Emily: The bylaw officers supported by the Victoria Police Department will be working with each individual camper to make sure that each plan is tailored to their needs. They want to make sure that this process is thoughtful and done intentionally and not clearing people out who might be on the list or vice versa. The city is anticipating this will be a slow process, and they're making sure it's going to be a slow process so they get it right. There are a lot of people camped in parks, and they've been there for a while. The city understands there’s a potential for protests. There are safety concerns for bylaw officers, and some people living in the park need mental health support and outreach that just isn't available. I spoke with Victoria Mayor Lisa helps on what the city might do for mental health support, and she said it's not in their jurisdiction. Cities look to the province, and the mental health outreach in the parks is not there. That makes bylaws job a lot more difficult. With all this in mind, it is within the city's power to seek a court injunction, should people push back against the end of 24/7. Looking through the report, it seems like the city won’t hesitate to seek an injunction if it should come to that. Their report talks about using an injunction as a strategy to squash dissent early on to send a serious message to people. Although injunctions are normally used to clear groups of people, the city has noted that they may obtain objections against individuals if necessary.

Jackie: Emily, thank you again for your continued reporting on this. It’s fantastic

Emily: I’m happy to do it. Thanks, Jackie.

Jackie: Do you want to help support Capital Daily’s local journalism to our engaged and curious Greater Victoria audience of almost 50,000? Email our partnerships team at capitaldaily.ca/advertise. Thank you for spending your Monday with us. If you enjoyed the podcast, please leave a rating and review share so that your friends can also find us. And subscribe so that you don’t miss any episodes going forward. We post new shows every Monday to Friday. My name is Jackie Lamport. This is the Capital Daily podcast. We’ll talk to you tomorrow.