City of Victoria: Still a long way to go

Today City of ‘victoria’ Parks staff did a good thing, confirming bathroom hours are extended so there are more bathrooms open 24/7 and that a portapotty will be put into a park where sheltering is allowed to make it more feasible to actually do that. Kudos to staff to communicating respectfully and responsively with Poverty Kills 2020 about this, and to Council for giving the direction to make this happen. That’s how it should go on every issue relating to homelessness: constructive action that provides a real solution.

But even while we celebrate this victory, there are still many serious issues. The City is still causing harm by going in the wrong direction in lots of ways, moving too slowly on some things, and totally ignoring the most important piece — listening to people who are unhoused. Community pressure has been effective in inching the City forward on bathroom access, and we hope that people will keep up the excellent work to push them to do other things that are also needed.

On April 25, 2020 Mayor Lisa Helps said: “From the beginning of the pandemic and every step of the way, the City has looked for every opportunity to help all residents through this challenging time….we can create a community where everyone feels safe, where everyone’s needs are met, and where everybody can live well and can live well together.” We completely agree that that’s what the City should be doing, but the reality is that the City is not doing this. Instead the City is largely maintaining their longstanding status quo of hurting people who are unhoused. In this piece we look at Council’s most recent initiatives and one of the most urgent issues: continued threat of displacement.

Recap: May 14 and 21 CITY decisions

As we’ve said in earlier posts, municipal and regional anti-poor bylaws have been a problem for a long time. This is true in every area of the CRD, but because a lot of people shelter in parks that fall under city of ‘victoria’ bylaws, decisions made by that municipality have a particularly big impact.

[Side note: it’s not just the city of ‘victoria’ that has anti-poor bylaws — other municipalities and regional governments also have bylaws that criminalize, displace, impose fines, and otherwise punish people for being visibly poor. In many locations people are targeted for sheltering outside or in vehicles, panhandling, sitting on sidewalks, and/or having nowhere to put belongings. Municipalities that have adopted this gross approach include ‘esquimalt’ and ‘saanich’, which like ‘victoria’ have harsh restrictions on sheltering in parks; ‘salmon arm‘, ‘kelowna‘, ‘maple ridge‘, ‘nanaimo‘, ‘penticton‘, ‘surrey‘ and ‘langley‘ have all made news in recent years for anti-poor bylaws, and this is a longstanding issue in ‘vancouver‘.]

The City of ‘victoria’ sank to a new low on May 14 when they posted a notice at MEEGAN (beaconhill park) imposing many new rules beyond their usual terrible anti-poor parks bylaw. Many organizations and individuals pointed out that the City’s approach thus far has been profoundly harmful, and called for the City to align with United Nations guidance on government responses to homelessness. But on May 21 Council upheld the City’s new rules and Bylaw officers’ discretion to enforce them, breaking every principle set out in the United Nations guidance. Council’s failure to give appropriate direction regarding survival sheltering then further emboldened City staff and Bylaw officers to impose further rules on May 26.

the latest and not-so-greatest: May 28 decision

On May 28 three people presented to Council pointing out that Council’s actions aren’t aligned with human rights law and again calling on Council to stop displacing people sheltering in parks. But instead of addressing that urgent issue, Council again went with a largely pointless motion calling on other levels of government to take action around homelessness. Instead of addressing the issues that are fully within Council’s power to positively impact, once again Council opted for empty gestures instead of accepting responsibility for its own role in causing harm — a classic colonial government dodge.

Here are the recommendations Council made on May 28. We share our take on what sucks about each of these — but again, much of what is crappy is the silence on key issues.

1. That Council requests that the Mayor write, on behalf of Council, to the Premier of British Columbia, copying Members of the Legislative Assembly representing constituencies in the Capital Region, reiterating the City of Victoria’s request that the Government of British Columbia mobilize sufficient resources to offer housing with appropriate social care and health care to all unhoused people in the province of British Columbia.

    The problem with this: It’s meaningless. Should everyone be able to have a safe place to live and access to care? Of course! But it’s not like the provincial government is going to get yet another letter from the city and say “oh wow, you’re so totally right, we’ll get on that immediately”. These kinds of performative gestures are PR moves to make it seem like the city cares about homeless people, dodging the ugly reality that the city is violent to homeless people. [Side note #2: If the city was serious about trying to push the province to do something useful, they’d work with homeless people, advocates, and community organizations to work together to build political power for this kind of a push — instead of stonewalling us.]

2. That Council directs City of Victoria staff to:

a) Resume booking hotel and motel rooms in the Capital Region without delay for people currently sheltering outdoors in the City of Victoria, working with partner organizations to offer housing with appropriate social care and health care services (and all supports and wraparound services that may be required), and with informed consent of people to be housed, drawing from unspent funds from $300,000 in previously approved Covid-19 response funding, and that the city seek reimbursement from the province for these expenditures.

    The many problems with this:

  • It’s meaningless. Over a month ago the City allocated $100,000 to trying to secure more hotel rooms weeks, and that money is still sitting unused because many motel/hotel owners have refused to lease rooms to people who BC Housing has identified are homeless. Again this is a performative gesture. But this one especially sucks because it gets people’s hopes up that shelter might be coming soon, that they might actually be offered a hotel room, when that’s not the case.
  • This recommendation makes sheltering contingent on there being on-site health and social services. Should every person be able to access health and social services? Yes! But just like privately housed people don’t have clinics attached to our front doors, people with low incomes who are in government-funded shelters and housing don’t all need the same things. This tying of services to housing is based on stereotypes and promotes institutionalized congregate housing. It’s never based on asking homeless people what services they want, who they trust to deliver those services, or how they want to access those services. It’s just more paternalism, saying “we’re here to help you” when really it’s about control.
  • Making sheltering contingent on services means no sheltering until a financial commitment is made by Island Health, plus staffing from community agencies that have already been run into the ground providing services at five other temporary shelters set up in the past two months. Every human being needs a safe place to live, and every human being needs access to health and social care, but saying that people have to stay unhoused till the services line up is ridiculous and punitive.
  • Hotel rooms are temporary band-aid solutions. What happens when the money runs out? This isn’t actually $300,000 towards sheltering, it’s much less than that as it is the leftover of $300,000 already approved and partially spent.
  • By broadening the search to hotel and motel rooms in the Capital Region (not just ‘victoria’) the City is not-so-subtly trying to push people off to other municipalities. This narrative that people are a ‘burden’ on the City is gross and untrue. It is definitely important to give people options about where they live, but if it’s the City’s intention to support people to stay where they feel safest, why frame this as applying specifically to people currently sheltering in ‘victoria’?
  • What does it mean to say that there would be “informed consent of people to be housed”, when the City’s plan is to have BC Housing administer this knowing full well that BC Housing has not applied informed consent to any placements in hotels/motels thus far, that BC Housing has just offered a “take it or leave it” approach to placements and has not provided people with any information about what to expect in the new space?
  • In saying that the city will seek reimbursement from the province, the city is saying “it’s not our responsibility to shelter people who don’t have housing and we’re going to do it grudgingly”. Sure, municipalities can’t in isolation solve homelessness — but we all have a responsibility, individually and collectively, to look after each other. The city is not a victim in this and needs to stop centering people who have money, people who are unhoused are the ones who are getting screwed over not taxpayers. It’s gross to hear the city whinging about spending a paltry $300,000 on emergency response, as if the city isn’t at all implicated in creating homelessness or hoarding colonially-stolen wealth.

b) Maintain access to hygiene for people currently sheltering outdoors, including handwashing facilities and washrooms in proximity to authorized outdoor sheltering locations on a 24-hour basis, drawing from unspent funds from previously approved Covid-19 response funding.

    The problem with this: The City almost got this one right! People having 24/7 access to bathrooms and handwashing is a basic need and a responsibility of municipalities to ensure. So this is the right direction. But the City also needs to stop framing it as within the $300k cap — if it takes more money than that to make sure everyone has 24/7 access to such basics, that’s the reality. The City also needs to stop framing this as “maintaining” access, admit that they haven’t provided this access yet (2.5 months into a pandemic where handwashing is key in preventing viral transmission), and this is about a long overdue increase in access. This is an increase in access that needs to be permanent, as homelessness isn’t going away any time soon and every human being always needs 24/7 bathroom access.

c) Maintain funding for shower facilities at Our Place, drawing from unspent funds from previously approved Covid-19 response funding.

    The problem with this: As the Council discussion about this issue showed, councillors don’t understand what the access issues are (because they’re not asking people who are homeless, advocates, or outreach workers). Our Place doesn’t need special funding from the City, they are planning to re-open their indoor showers the day the outdoor shower trailer is dismantled. BUT having only two locations in the whole city where homeless adults can shower (Our Place and Rock Bay Landing, and RBL is only available 4 hours a day) is deeply inadequate. It’s also a violation of the UN guidelines’ directive around having hygiene facilities near where people are sheltering. With the city and province having edged people out of downtown sheltering spaces near Our Place, shower facilities are now needed at the more peripheral locations where people are living. The city has to stop applying a one-size-fits-all solution to everything and not force everyone to come to one or two services to get all their needs met. That was never a useful approach, and in COVID times it’s an even worse idea.

continued threat of displacement

In all this talk about money and other levels of government, the City still isn’t addressing the actual main issue that homeless people keep asking for action on: the ongoing threat of displacement. This is an issue squarely within the City’s jurisdiction and Councillors have the opportunity to take positive action. But they keep squandering that opportunity, leaving people sheltering outside in a highly stressful limbo of not knowing whether they will be forcibly evicted by Bylaw officers for not being able to comply with the City’s asinine rules.

The position taken at the May 21 Council meeting was to not enforce daytime sheltering bans till June 25, when Council has instructed City staff to provide an update on sheltering in parks and opportunities for indoor sheltering options. At the May 28 Council meeting, Poverty Kills 2020 urged Council to prepare for that June 25 decision by engaging right away in preparatory work with homeless people, advocates, and human rights experts so Council’s decision can align with United Nations guidance and human rights obligations and can be grounded in what unhoused people want and need. The response? Silence.

In the meantime, unhoused people who are sheltering in locations or ways that are outside the City’s unworkable rules continue to face unpredictable harassment by Bylaw officers, and are in constant precarity and uncertainty. One day Bylaw says they have to move, the next Bylaw says they can stay for a while longer, then it’s back to being told they have to move. Giving Bylaw officers this kind of power over people’s lives is brutal. Council needs to stop this abuse, commit to complying with United Nations guidance, and immediately affirm that there will be no displacement or forced evictions.

This isn’t just a theoretical or hypothetical issue, it’s something that is real and affecting people’s lives right now. People living in one site under current threat of displacement have been working with us to document their experiences and we will be posting their stories in the next couple days — stay tuned.

Radical Buttons created these to support a previous tent city evicted by ‘saanich’ and other municipalities in the CRD

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