We are human beings: Open letter from people living outside, to Victoria city council and staff

In every city across ‘canada’ there are people living outside — sleeping in tents or cars or without any shelter, living in parks, alleyways or sidewalks. Instead of asking people who are living outside what they need and working constructively with them to make things better, many cities have taken a hostile “us and them” mentality, creating bylaws that criminalize homelessness and make people’s lives even harder. This includes the city of ‘victoria’ which has for years legally fought against unhoused people being able to live in peace. 

Right now there are people living outside in many locations who are being negatively affected by the city’s parks bylaw. This letter is from people living in two locations: a roadside boulevard where people are facing imminent displacement, and MEEGAN (beaconhill park), where people are temporarily being allowed to shelter 24/7.

An outreach worker with Poverty Kills 2020 asked residents what they wanted to say. These are the words of people living outside.

This boulevard is our home: 8 residents of B Street

We aren’t telling you the name of the street where we are camped because we don’t want more stress and harassment. Already we have to deal with bylaw officers, we don’t want anti-homeless haters too. In mid-April someone who started fires in a bunch of places throughout the city lit some of our tents on fire, we are lucky nobody was hurt. Imagine the anxiety it’d cause if you had to worry every night that your tent might get set on fire.

The reason we’re here is simple: we don’t have anywhere else to go. There isn’t enough housing for everyone, hundreds of people are homeless right now. When COVID started and housing units pushed for no visitors or guests, we had no place to go or couch surf. Being together on B street is better than being alone sleeping on the street downtown.

We live here because it’s close to things that we need to be able to survive, like showers, doctors, pharmacy. We’ve gotten to know staff and outreach on a personal level. It’s like a community within a community, and we feel safety in that community. This is the only place we feel comfortable right now, and safe. Other spaces are closed, so this is the only place we can be. We can come and go safely, with people to be there for us.

We have privacy here and we’re out of the eyes of the public which makes us feel safer. Living in a park means constantly having to deal with people who are angry because they feel it’s “their” park and they don’t want to see people who are homeless. We can’t live under constant public scrutiny. We need a place to live where we can be left in peace. 

Many of us have at times been in housing where housing providers didn’t listen to us or our needs. Not asking what we want or need sets us up for failure. We didn’t feel like that housing was safe, and it didn’t work for us. It didn’t feel like home.

This is our own little community. We’re comfortable and even though we didn’t all know each other to start, after living together for months now we do all know each other. We came here and connected with folks down here and staff and became comfortable. We aren’t housed but this is our home, this street feels like our home right now. This has a family aspect that’s super important. We help each other.

We’ve been here for months and nobody bothered us at first. But now Bylaw officers have told us we have to move because this isn’t an official “park”. We don’t understand why the city is making us move. We are out of the way in an industrial area. We’re not blocking the street, nobody walks on the sidewalk on this side of the street because there’s nothing behind where our tents are up, just a fence. 

Displacement is exhausting and super stressful. Having the ability to be in one place here has been a huge weight off our shoulders, it makes us relieved and allows us to work on our own lives and be more amenable to workers, bylaw, etc. If we keep having to move, especially if we have to move every morning under the usual bylaw, we’d be so stressed out that we couldn’t work with anyone in a constructive manner.

Sometimes bylaw officers treat us like animals. When we had legal observers here they backed off because people were there to see what they were really doing. I’d like to get a camera down here so you can get a feel of how they really do treat us, because they treat us different when legal observers are here, or outreach is here. They’re throwing out a person’s whole life. You can’t throw our stuff away, this is survival gear. We have nothing and you’re throwing it away? How do they sleep at night knowing they stirred a guy’s life upside down? It’s like they get joy out of this. They laugh sometimes when they’re doing it, like they enjoy it, or it’s just a job. But it’s our lives. 

We want to stay where we are, until there is housing that feels safe for us and where we will be respected and treated decently like the human beings that we are. We need plans catered to the individual not one size fits all, especially when it comes to our mental health. In the meantime we want the city to work with us, to listen to us. We want basic things like a portapotty so we can use the bathroom when we need to, just like a housed person does. We want bylaw officers to treat us with respect. That’s not asking for much.

Photos below are of the area at B Street that people call home, shared with residents’ permission.

MEEGAN residents’ thoughts on Council’s upcoming June 25 decision 

Outreach workers told us about your May 21 meeting and your decision to hold off on the usual 7-to-7 bylaw enforcement until June 25, when you’ll get a report from your staff and consider whether to extend that for a longer time. 

Outreach workers also told us that part of your decision was to “maintain and improve dialogue between the City of Victoria Bylaw Division, people living outside and the people who work with them regarding sheltering-in-place in locations where overnight sheltering is permitted, under the purview of the City Bylaw division, to mitigate unintended harms of City bylaws to those who are living outside”.

Because you said you wanted to improve dialogue, we’ve been waiting to hear from you. We haven’t heard anything yet, two weeks after you said you’d talk with us. So we’re reaching out to you.

Some of us have been living in this park since before March when COVID started. Other people came after being pushed out from Topaz and Pandora, or from other spots.

Not knowing what is going to happen to us after June 25 is causing massive stress and anxiety. Since COVID started in March we have been living through so many changes. Some people have had to move many times. It’s really hard to have to move again. Cramming us all into one location isn’t good for anyone, we need to be able to go where we feel safe. We need to be able to choose where we go and who we live with.

Many things that we rely on for survival were shut down in March because of COVID, and nobody knows when those things will open back up again. We have been living for months without access to basic things like laundry or drinking water, and it’s just now that access to those things are starting to get figured out with outreach workers. If we have to move again all of that will be destroyed, just like at Topaz. We can’t keep going through that.

Since April 25 people living here haven’t been considered eligible for any of the motel or other spaces that the government opened up. That’s not fair. People at Pandora and Topaz got priority because of the government’s May 20 deadline and because of being in the public eye, but we were left behind.

You can’t ask us to leave when there’s nowhere else for us to go. Asking us to leave even though we’ve been here so long and others were housed isn’t fair. 

People are looking down on us like we’re choosing not to take housing, but that’s not the situation. Many of us have been on housing waitlists for a long time, long before COVID started. 

We want access to permanent housing, in the meantime we want spaces in hotels or motels, same as everyone who was living at Topaz and Pandora. A temporary option till something permanent is available should be the same for everyone, the same opportunity everyone at Topaz and Pandora was given.

We also need more than one option, not just one hotel with one set of rules. Different people need different things. 

The current system is a setup for failure. There needs to be a clear understanding of guidelines and they need to be fair. We need to have say in how these places are run, our input needs to be considered. Things will go better if there is agreement among the residents and service providers about how to do things. 

There should be no displacement till a workable, agreeable alternative is offered. Displacing people is not solving the problem here, it only makes it worse. 

If there isn’t housing for everyone living outside by June 25 then we want you to extend the deadline for a lot longer, not keep going month by month. We can’t have stability when there’s a constant threat of displacement. The reality is that nobody knows how things are going to go with COVID. But you can at least decide to suspend enforcement of the 7-to-7 bylaw until we have a safe place to go.

3 thoughts on “We are human beings: Open letter from people living outside, to Victoria city council and staff

  1. I hope every person who signed that Beacon Hill petition (to remove those people) reads this and hang their heads in shame!
    You too Lisa Helps!!
    This treatment is disgusting and needs to STOP now!

    Liked by 1 person

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