Premier John Horgan says he disagrees with Victoria’s choice not to enforce bylaws prohibiting day camping in Beacon Hill Park, but the mayor says the city is just following the direction of the provincial health officer.
“There is a bylaw in place that says you can’t camp during the day,” Horgan said Monday during a press conference. “You have to fold up your camp in the morning. Victoria has chosen not to enforce that because they believe that in a pandemic, that would be ill-advised. I disagree with that, but that’s not my responsibility.”
But Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said she is simply following the direction of Dr. Bonnie Henry, sent to all mayors, in not forcing the 100 people now camping out in Beacon Hill Park to leave during the day.
In the June 8 letter, Henry says that while encampments are not a desirable form of long-term housing, “clearing or moving encampments without providing shelter/housing immediately can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers.”
On Tuesday, Henry said the intent of the letter "was to suspend the uprooting of people every day when there was no where for them to go. This was in the context of shelters and day programs and supports in the community being shut or dramatically reduced because of the pandemic."
Affordable housing is in short supply, and services that people in shelters or camps might access during the day are on limited hours, if open at all, during the pandemic.
Helps said the city made the difficult decision, despite public criticism, to follow the advice of the provincial health officer and to “respect people’s human rights to shelter, particularly in a health pandemic.”
Horgan noted that the province has undertaken major initiatives to house people who were sleeping along Pandora Avenue and in Topaz Park, as well as in Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park.
In Victoria, about 340 people are now staying in hotels that were purchased by the province and converted into supportive-housing units.
Horgan appealed to the city to “step up with some genuine ideas rather than just turning to other orders of government,” saying: “I know that the mayor and council are grappling with these issues, but clearly there needs to be some leadership at the municipal level as well.”
Helps said she has a “ton of respect” for the premier and can’t say what he was thinking when he made the comments, except to say “the premier is probably really frustrated just like everybody else, because it’s a really challenging thing to be a leader through a global health epidemic.”
Helps said she didn’t take the premier’s comments personally, adding the two governments have to work together on the issue.
The mayor said the city has shown leadership on homelessness over the last five years, with land purchases and consolidation as well as the Housing First initiative, which saw $40 million in regional investment, along with contributions from the provincial and federal governments.
In terms of creative ideas, Helps noted that she has floated the idea of using the former Oak Bay Lodge facility for temporary shelter. On Monday, she suggested putting more stable clients into that space, rather than the hardest-to-house who come directly from camps.
The Capital Regional District’s board has agreed to explore the possibility of using the 238-bed lodge for temporary housing, or as an interim hospital during the pandemic, although Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch has said he is concerned the temporary use will harm long-term plans for the site.
The province purchased the 75-room Paul’s Motor Inn on Douglas Street for about $15 million to provide temporary supportive housing for people without homes in Victoria, and $18.5 million to buy the Comfort Inn and Suites at 3020 Blanshard St. to house 93 people. The long-term plan for both properties is to redevelop them into affordable housing.
Horgan said he appreciates that nearby businesses have complained about an impact, but notes that neighbours are also concerned about those occupying Beacon Hill Park.
Some park users and nearby residents have said they have been threatened while walking through the park and are concerned about crime and open drug use. Victoria police are investigating a suspected bicycle “chop shop” in the park, and a group of city parks staff is refusing to work in the park after two city employees were threatened.
Members of the Friends of Beacon Hill Park have raised concerns about fire hazards, especially in hot and dry conditions, and a change.org petition called Save Beacon Hill Park, started by Cynthia Diadick, has more than 20,000 signatures.
“So is it leave the encampment in Beacon Hill Park or is it find alternatives?” Horgan said. “It is clearly about making as many people happy as possible.”
The premier said the province has been working with public-health officials to explore ways shelters could re-open. He also said the province and municipalities have to work together to allow construction of more modular and not-for-profit housing and to ensure services for people with mental-health and addiction challenges in those units.
“I appeal to everyone in communities across British Columbia to be patient and tolerant of those who are less fortunate than themselves and find themselves at this point in their lives without a home and without anywhere else to go. And then we have to work together to find solutions to all of those problems wherever they may be.”