Over four gatherings in late April and early May, Topaz Camp residents brainstormed ideas on two large whiteboards about what they wanted the public/decision makers to know and what would make them feel cared about. Outreach workers from AVI set up the logistics for the meetings. Volunteers from Poverty Kills 2020 transcribed and compiled the contributions. These are the words of Topaz residents.
We live at the tent city at Topaz Park. We came here when government told us to move here in early April, because this was their approved tenting site. Then they changed their minds on April 25 and told us they’re shutting down the tent city.
Nobody asked us if we wanted to move here, nobody asked us if we want to leave, and nobody asked us about the situation with the shelters they say they’ll move us into. Everyone keeps making decisions for us, without talking to us.
Some of us have been brainstorming ideas about what we want. There is commUNITY here. We can’t speak for everyone, everyone’s situation is different. But these are the things we want government, media, and the public to know about our situation. Other people living here and at other sites should also have the chance to speak up and be heard.
Stop making assumptions about us
We reflect what you’re scared of.
COVID has made housed people’s fear way worse. They are afraid for themselves, for everyone except for people living on the street or in a car. They’re not afraid for us, they’re afraid of us.
People on Pandora are getting harassed, stuff thrown at them, tents slashed. Who should be scared of who?
Don’t judge us, you don’t know our stories. We have family. We care about each other. You should give your head a shake if you haven’t experienced this firsthand.
Government says they’re shutting down the tent city because it’s not safe. But for some of us this is the safest place we’ve been. It’s healing, because of the care and empathy of the residents & the coalition that runs Topaz. Everyone here shares a common pain of being an outsider, and our shared experience has created a community. We get more help from each other than the system.
Stop policing Topaz. This is an intense triggering environment, to be living behind fences and constantly being watched. People here need privacy, respect, and safety. We need a chill atmosphere.
Many of us still have nowhere to go
The May deadline is impossible and has many of us stressed and worried. A couple days ago BC Housing gave us a handout that says “People have to move out of the camps. Outreach workers are offering people places they can move to. The government will not force anyone to leave until everyone in each camp has been offered a safer place to live.”
But most people here have NOT been offered a hotel room – there’s lots of talk but no action! We don’t even know what the process is! We deserve to know what is going on.
The placement process is messed up, there are people in tents & sick who need rooms. It’s a bad process, and hasn’t prioritized people’s needs. BC Housing needs to come back, there are lots of people on disability who haven’t been offered a room.
Some of us are living out here with no tents, or having to share other people’s tents. They’re not giving us tents if ours are taken down or get stolen. As part of clearing the camp they are throwing out people’s tents if they think we’ve left Topaz. Sometimes they throw out tents with our belongings inside.
Lots of us aren’t even on the list yet for hotels and nobody will tell us for sure who is and isn’t on the list.
There are spaces out there, but people are still here at Topaz. Why?!
Some of the motels aren’t good for people with mobility issues. What happens to people in that situation?
Some of us don’t feel safe at any proposed option, where do we go? People need more options for housing, including helping people who need some space from Victoria.
Some of us want to stay at Topaz. We don’t want you to close Topaz, we want year-round camping. LET US STAY! It’s been good at Topaz, feels like community. At the very least Topaz needs to stay open until everyone has been offered a proper place. We were in a shelter, then they sent us here, now it’s back to a shelter. Leaving people here is no more expensive than housing us, might even be cheaper. It’s easier to keep in contact here with service providers etc.
Temporary shelters are not the same as housing
WE NEED HOUSING! There should have been housing before COVID! Why did it take COVID to make people pay attention?
Finding a place to live is impossible. Why is there no cap on rent prices? $1,350 before utilities is too much! There are so many overpriced apartments sitting empty for multiple months. That should not be allowed! There should be some units in every apartment building reserved for subsidized housing and BC Housing should help with the cost of rent for people on disability.
The rules we are told to follow to get housing are unfair and there are long waitlists. BC Housing told one of us to downsize and get rid of a pet in order to get a place, six months before they actually helped.
Some of us came here from recovery programs for people who use drugs. They call it transitional housing but really it’s just a short-term shelter that we have to pay to live in, it’s not real housing. In one building run by the Portland Hotel Society all programs were cancelled due to COVID-19, we have less food and the common rooms are closed, but we were still paying full program fees, $1,000/month! What about our rights? BC Housing is doing NOTHING for us! And it makes no sense. BC Housing should help people exit from supportive recovery programs into real housing, so that we aren’t stuck in a 4 month “program” for over a year (this is the norm) and so more spaces become available in the program for people wanting help with recovery.
We need these temporary hotels to become permanent housing for those on disability. We need long-term housing not temporary solutions. And that housing needs to be run by us, in ways that respect our rights.
We know how to look after each other
The government keeps saying that we can’t be housed unless there are services in the building. But nobody’s asking us what we need and how we want things to be set up.
We already know how to do things. We are running our own overnight overdose prevention service, looking after each other. We need to run our own overdose prevention 24/7 and we should be paid fairly to do this, just like other service providers get paid. We should get to decide who we trust to look after us.
The stigma surrounding drug use is costing people’s lives. It’s not only people who are homeless who use drugs, most overdoses happen in people’s private homes. Yes we need overdose prevention, everybody does, housed or homeless. In April people died here from overdose. But in April people died in their homes too from overdose. Housed people could learn a lot from us about how we look after each other and fight stigma.
Service providers need to communicate better with each other, and ask us how to do things. We think you should separate things by different factions in the street community, for example drug use / booze etc., then the services can coordinate easier.
All homeless people deserve housing
Many people have been left behind in this plan. Spaces are only offered to people living here at Topaz, or Pandora. It’s not fair that people living in other spots aren’t getting anything.
For some people a motel room isn’t workable. Some people feel they will be better off in a car or living outside. But there’s nothing for people living in cars or vans. People’s tires are getting slashed and they have no showers.
What about people who are still outside, how will we be supported? Tenting and binning gives us some things, like a chance to buy some food. But showers and laundry are so important. What’s the plan? People outside haven’t had laundry for 7 weeks!!!
We need outreach for people becoming homeless for the first time/again.
What we want you to do
The government said close down Topaz. They didn’t ask us what we need right now, what we need in how Topaz is being closed, or what we need after.
The most important things to us right now:
- We need more beverages! It’s getting warm and we don’t have enough water. Water from an outside tap that was never meant for drinking water isn’t safe, we need real drinking water.
- Government: get your heads out ur ass and get us hotel rooms!!
- More information and communication about hotel rooms and the group shelters that BC Housing is working on.
- Better communication between housing workers and Topaz outreach about hotel placements. Tell us what does it take to get HOUSING or at least a room – who do you gotta know?
- What is happening with laundry?!
- What happens to our belongings is a major issue. You shouldn’t have to choose between your belongings and a hotel room. We need storage lockers or other storage space. We need a way to protect our stuff from theft right now, and a way to prevent having to give up our things to go inside.
- Support to move belongings when we move, so we know it’s safe
- Serious consideration for where and with who people are placed. We need to have say in who we live next to and with.
- We don’t feel our rights are being respected. We want to get legal advice from lawyers that practice public interest law, legal advocates, people who can be here to document what is going on. We want people to help file complaints with the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner.
- Remember that we are human beings! We need to have some nice things happen, surprises like ice cream and jokes. Don’t sweat the petty things, pet the sweaty things.
When we move into motel and hotel rooms we need:
- To be treated with care and respect – we are human beings
- Transportation to the new location
- Access to phone so we can call 911 if we need it, and communicate with our family and friends and service providers
- Freedom to visit friends & connect — community!
- Someone to listen and talk to (counsellor)
- Access to MCFD services for people who want that
- Access to more bathrooms! All around town! Otherwise we and everyone else are trapped inside.
- Money for the transition, for clothing etc.
- Temperature control and A/C so we’re not roasting inside
- Less police presence
- More information about WTF is going on, all these shelters are temporary
We will be writing more as things unfold and we expect to be taken seriously and listened to. We deserve to be treated with respect.
Below are photos of some of the white boards we used to brainstorm our thoughts and write this article.
9 thoughts on “The Talk From Topaz: Where do we go from here? By Topaz Residents”
Good God, Are they kidding or is this real. I would love to have these demands. No police presence, free housing, free money, free, free, free. But I have to work for it. And because of it I don’t want my families taxes used for this. These people are lucky. Name one country who would appease them by meeting their demands. I would then agree right away for government assisted transportation to send them there.
Hi Jorge. Maybe you could think about what you would want for yourself or your loved ones if any of you became homeless. You have a stereotype in your head of homeless people as being lazy, when the reality is that it is a huge amount of work to survive homelessness. You also don’t seem to understand that anyone can become unhoused and unhoused people are still human beings who, just like you and your loved ones, need access to a safe place to live, food, water, showers, laundry, etc.
Many people who are homeless do paid work, some more than full-time, and still can’t afford housing. Some people who are homeless can’t do paid work due to illness, injury, or significant disability. Some are seniors. Everyone deserves and needs the same things as you and your family.
You could think too about what it means that you are suggesting sending people away and breaking communities and relationships. How would you feel if one of your loved ones became homeless and the government sent them away from you, or if you were the one being sent away? Keep in mind that in the greater ‘victoria’ area, 1/3 of homeless people are Indigenous. Other people are refugees or migrant workers who have had to come here because they had no other choice for survival, often suffering a lot of heartbreak at leaving beloved home and family. Pushing people away from you does not solve the problem of homelessness. And that’s the real issue. We need to actually do things that are constructive…
Very sad indeed, as many are there by circumstances not by choice! Yes, there are also many who really do not want help and want to stay living on the streets. This is a real eye opener as this could happen to any of us! With high “affordable rents “ all over the place, more and more seniors on pensions will and have been losing their homes and end up on the streets! I know myself as I struggle month to month to make ends meet on pension that only goes up $6 a month every year! CPP & OAS has not risen much since my parents were on it 20 years ago! As cost of living sky rockets pensions do not! Please help those who really want it and help them get back on their feet!
Hi Cathy! It’s great that you recognize that many people are in precarious situations and could easily end up being homeless. But the way you divide up people into “deserving” and “undeserving” is not helpful. Everyone living outside is a human being and just like you or me or anyone else needs basics — a safe place to live, food, etc. These essential basics are set out in multiple United Nations agreements that ‘canada’ has signed onto and are recognized as universal human rights, because they are universal human needs. Whether someone is living outside because that’s where they feel safest for right now or they are someone who wants to move inside ASAP, everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. We are not a charity and we don’t “help” anyone, we extend solidarity and care to everyone who is homeless with respect for the diverse needs out there. We fully support people’s autonomy, power, and decision-making to decide what is best for their situation.
I do think that opening and offering housing to our homeless population is a necessary step to help people get back on their feet and get the help they need. I do think that having a roof over your head is a basic necessity that should be afforded to everyone. But this reads like a spoiled child. Demanding and entitled. Saying, “We know how to take care of each other. Stop policing us.” but in the same breath say, “Our tents are being slashed, our belongings are being stolen, people are overdosing.” and “Give us money, give us phones, give us AC.” For real? How is biting the hand that feeds you helping in any way? I think, when you have nothing and are offered a lifeline, no matter if it’s temporary or not, take it and be grateful. Use it, don’t abuse it. If you don’t want it, that’s fine. You do have that choice. I’m sure someone else will jump at the opportunity to take your place. Staffed, supported sites, are a necessary step in finding independence. These places are temporary and staffed with workers who can help people gain the life skills to keep and maintain a forever home. I think that the steps that are being taken are appropriate.
Hi Matt. We see in your comment that you understand that everyone needs a safe place to live and that this is a basic necessity. We also see that you don’t understand what people are saying and where the violence is coming from. It is City staff, Bylaw officers, and BC Housing contractors who are slashing people’s tents and throwing away people’s belongings. Policing isn’t the solution to that, it’s police who are accompanying these government workers when they are destroying people’s things. People are overdosing because the government’s approach of criminalizing use of certain substances has created an unpredictable and toxic drug supply, and people use alone because they are afraid of being further criminalized and punished for their use. Saying that people should be grateful for getting a PBJ sandwich a couple times a day or offered a temporary shelter space ignores the harm that is being done.
It is patronizing to say that people are homeless because they don’t have life skills. People who are homeless are tremendously skilled, you have to be to survive. People aren’t poor or homeless because they’re broken and need government help and someone to teach them how to fit into a broken society. People are poor and homeless because we live in a messed up system where some people hoard wealth and don’t act in ways that are fair and equitable, stealing other people’s land and labour out of greed and entitlement. Disability, pension, and income rates are not liveable, and there is a longstanding shortage of affordable housing because housing has been made into a commodity instead of treating it as a universal need.
What is being offered right now by government is not a respectful lifeline, it is the same old colonial bullshit that imposes one-size-fits-all measures on people. It comes from a place not of care and respect but of wanting to make poverty less visible so housed people aren’t inconvenienced.
Some people want to live in a place with supports on-site. Others don’t need that, or need support to be offered in a different way. Just liked housed people, homeless people need different things. It is wrong to make assumptions that everyone needs the same things. Can you imagine if you and your neighbours were all forced to live in one giant building and told no guests, you have to follow our rules, and we’ll give you two meals a day and someone will knock on your door to check if you’re being tidy? That is the reality for people who have been moved inside.
It didn’t have to be this way. Government could have sat down with people who are homeless and said “You tell us what needs to happen. You know the situation better than we do.” There could have been listening, trust, mutual respect developed, and a plan that was collaboratively designed to actually meet people’s needs. Even the United Nations, hardly a radical activist group, calls for this approach and has criticized ‘canadian’ governments for violating people’s human rights by not taking this approach. Instead government keeps doing what they always do: pour millions of dollars into temporary band-aids that people didn’t ask for, puffing up a poverty industry where housed people get paid to manage, control, and contain homeless people.
Hi Poverty Kills,
You’re right, I didn’t understand that this violence talked about in the article was coming from City Staff, Bylaw Officers and BC Housing contractors. Is this because there is a mandate or rule in place that if a tent or area isn’t occupied for a certain amount of time it is considered abandoned and subsequently taken down to make room for another? I ask this because you also mention that police are present and escorting these workers and I don’t believe there is any way that they, police or city workers, would maliciously slash tents and discard belongings for no reason.
You’re also right that the gov’s approach to criminalizing substance use has created a toxic supply and is creating unsafe behaviour for those who use. If I had my druthers all substances would be legal. You’re an adult, you want to use, by all means go right ahead, but that’s a different conversation.
I wasn’t trying to be patronizing, but a good majority of homeless people have been living on the streets for a very long time and don’t have the skills to maintain a home or may only need a refresher. It’s just reality. And with people that do have those skills, the staff at the temporary housing sites would assess this and be able to move them through to more permanent housing options.
Having someone knock on your door while you’re in a space that is given to you and being paid for by someone else to make sure that you are treating the space with respect and help you in working towards your goals for a more permanent home is not uncalled for or unfair. Would I like it? No. Would I deal with it to get myself off the streets. You fucking better believe I would. And I would also be grateful for a sandwich 3 times a day. Why wouldn’t I? It’s free food that I wouldn’t have to worry about. I would be grateful that I didn’t go to sleep hungry this night.
You’re right again that the amount received for PWD, CPP, OAS, and GIS are are not enough by a long shot. I also believe that there should be a Universal Basic Income in Canada and I am happy that the NDP have this on the table right now. But again, that’s a different discussion.
You may not like the system that is in place. I don’t. But you need to work with it to improve your lot in life. One size does not fit all, but it’s what we got. By all means rally, educate, change the system, but in the mean time, be thankful for what is given to you. You want to improve your life, take what you are offered and work with it. Don’t turn your nose up to it. You’ll end up biting yourself in the ass if you do.
Hi Matt – thanks for your thoughtful reply.
We know it is hard to believe that city workers and government contractors, accompanied by VicPD and Bylaw Officers, would maliciously slash tents and discard belongings for no good reason. It’s so cruel, why would anyone do that? But that is what is happening.
It’s not that there’s no reason. The reason is pretty simple: make people as miserable as possible in the hopes that they’ll leave here and go elsewhere. That’s gross and not at all a solution, but we have to be real about what the reason is. There is no other reason to do it.
There are three different justifications the government and their contractors use for slashing tents and taking people’s belongings:
* There is a process where government considers those items “abandoned” and then destroys them. But the way that’s done is arbitrary, unfair, unreasonable and unnecessary. if you happen to not be in your tent when HL Demolition (the contractor hired by BC Housing to clear Topaz/Pandora) or Bylaw / City staff (other sites) comes to check it, and you happen to also not be in your tent the next day when they check again, that’s considered “abandoned”. That’s not realistic. People can’t know when the first check will be, and even if they’re told when the next one is there might be reasons they can’t be there at that time — they might be out getting food or another survival necessity, in hospital, looking after a loved one, etc. If someone has left their tent up, and there are still belongings in it, why would anyone think it’s been abandoned? Can you imagine the uproar there would be if housed people had their housing expropriated this way? “You weren’t home, so we seized your house and threw everything out.”
Why the push to remove a tent that may or may not still be in use, why does it have to be removed so quickly? And why does it have to be destroyed rather than being stored for someone to make a claim (which is the process set out in the Parks Regulations Bylaw, that people have the right to get their stuff back within 6 hours if it was accidentally taken and that the City will hold it for 30 days — if you want to fact-check for yourself, google “Viotoria Parks Bylaw”)? There are so many other ways that stuff thought to be abandoned could be dealt with rather than destroying it.
* For folks at Topaz and Pandora, the excuse being given is that under the BC government enforcement order to clear those camps, people who came after April 25 aren’t supposed to be on the site. But the reality is that people still need somewhere to live and shouldn’t have their stuff destroyed just because they are staying there until the order to completely clear the site comes into effect. This is a violation of the United Nations directives on human rights obligations and treatment of homeless people.
* For people in other parks, City Bylaw recently added a bunch of new rules beyond what’s in the Parks Bylaw, which they put up on a poster May 14. Anyone who in City staff’s opinion isn’t complying can have their belongings taken and immediately destroyed (again in contravention of the City’s own Parks bylaw). We are in conversation with legal advocates as these new rules are a violation of the United Nations guidance around human rights obligations and we suspect also a violation of ‘canadian’ law. These rules include impossible requirements like having everything in a space no more than 10×10′ — about the size of two beds side by side — no matter what the size is of your family. You’re not allowed to attach tarps to anything so no way to stay dry, and no way to have handwashing stations or other vital necessities as that is considered “garbage”. Their new rules even contradict each other, like a fire regulation saying there has to be 4 metres unobstructed space between tents for safe fire exit in case of emergency, but then a parks requirement that all your belongings must be within 1 metre of the outside of your tent. There’s a lot more that could be said about this, and we will be doing a detailed blog post soon. In the meantime you might want to check out our posts about the May 14 notice and the suggested action that the City comply with United Nations directives and human rights obligations.
You mention that lots of homeless people have lived on the streets for a very long time and don’t have the skills to maintain a home. But that’s an oversimplification.
if you take a look at the most recent point-in-time count (March 2018, the 2020 data aren’t out yet) at https://www.crd.bc.ca/about/what-we-do/regional-housing/research-and-planning you’ll see that one of the questions is how long people have been homeless. 21% had been homeless for less than 6 months, and they didn’t ask any more detailed questions beyond 6 months so no way of knowing how long most people had been homeless for 7 months or 7 years. But we can’t assume it was the latter. Also, almost 40% of older people who were homeless had their first experience of homelessness at the age of 55 or above – they were clearly able to maintain housing for most of their lives.
Even people who have been homeless for a long time have lots of skills. I worked with folks at a previous tent city and became good friends with one of them, who had lived outside for about 5 years. He asked if he could move into our home and I said yes, he could couch-surf for a while with us and see how it went. Coincidentally, someone moved out shortly after and he became my roommate for a year and he was a terrific roommate. Going from living outside to inside was an adjustment, for sure; but he had lots of skills and was great to live with.
You suggest that having staff at the temporary housing sites able to assess housing readiness means they will be able to move people through to more permanent housing options. It would be great if it was the case that there was affordable housing ready and waiting for people who need it. But the reality is that waitlists are already years long for affordable housing. A housing agency worker onsite isn’t actually able to refer anyone in a shelter to housing. It’s not that people aren’t ready to be housed, it’s that there is no affordable housing. That’s why it’s so frustrating that money is being spent on BC Housing outreach workers who get people to fill in application after application. It’s pointless and harmful, getting people’s hopes up for nothing and making it seem like there is a simple pathway to getting housed when the reality is there’s hundreds of people ahead of you on the waitlist.
I can see that you’re working hard to understand, but also that you have particular ideas about people being grateful for everything they get even if it’s scraps. I actually think it’s way healthier when people haven’t been so beaten down that they can still have enough self-esteem to say “No! I deserve better than this. Everyone deserves better than this.” Because everyone does. And we can do SO much better than a sandwich or a tiny room with no laundry. There is enough for all of us to have nutritious food, a safe place to live, drinking water…it just requires that people who have more than they need stop taking for more than a fair share.
We’ve got lots of other work to do so can’t keep talking here, but hope you’ll stay on the page and keep reading and considering what people are saying. Think about how you would want to be treated yourself, how you’d want your loved ones to be treated, and what we can all to do to improve the system so everyone does get a decent standard of living.