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Editorial: Canada needs homeless plan

The outrage that blew up last week over a possible tent city in Topaz Park shows just how hard it is going to be for the city to find a solution to the problem of homelessness.

The outrage that blew up last week over a possible tent city in Topaz Park shows just how hard it is going to be for the city to find a solution to the problem of homelessness.

But with the federal government missing in action, it is the city that must come up with an answer, even if it’s a temporary one.

Last week, Victoria city council voted to look at establishing a “designated sheltering site in a park.” It would sign a contract with a service provider to run the site, which would be chosen after consultation with residents.

City staff suggested that Topaz, the city’s second-largest park, looks like the most likely site. It was the only site that got serious consideration from councillors in their discussions.

The reaction from nearby residents was predictably swift and heated.

People in the area said Topaz is the wrong place, pointing to its use by families, soccer teams, tennis players and special events such as the Highland Games. About 60 people gathered in the park on Saturday to protest the idea.

Debra Doerksen said: “We’ve never made one complaint about a few tents being out here in the park, because people struggle. They need a place to be, but collectively having over a hundred people camping in this park is not a solution.”

In a YouTube video, Mayor Lisa Helps said it was “heartbreaking” to see the angst generated by the proposal. On Tuesday, she apologized for the clumsy way the plan was rolled out and promised nothing would be done until the public is consulted.

She asked Victorians for input and for patience. Indeed, everyone will need patience because a tent city might be a stop-gap measure, but it won’t fix the tragedy of homelessness.

In her video, Helps also says it is “heartbreaking” that the city has to be considering the option because the federal government has walked away from any responsibility for what is a national problem. She promises to insist that Ottawa do something to help.

“In the 21st century, in a First World country, no city should be talking about having a temporary tenting area. It’s just ridiculous. It’s ridiculous that we’re even having this conversation,” Helps said.

Unfortunately, we are forced into having the conversation, but it could be about the wrong subject.

The city, looking at the $600,000 it spends each year in coping with the tents that are springing up in parks around the city, sees it as a problem of people in tents.

It’s the fallout from a court decision that said the city couldn’t ban camping in parks if there was a shortage of shelter beds. That has effectively opened all the city’s parks to campers.

But this is a larger issue. It is also a problem of addiction and mental health. Herding all the tenters into one park won’t get treatment for those who need it.

The prevailing wisdom is that providing people with a secure place to live is an important step in helping them to climb out of addiction or find treatment for illness. A tent city, no matter how well organized, is not a meaningful way to reach those goals.

Moving tenters out of scattered parks into one site — assuming that they would go — would only shift the problem to a new location.

Be warned: There are few things as permanent as “temporary” solutions.

The city is doing the best it can with an impossible situation, but until this country has a national strategy on homelessness, our best won’t be good enough.