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Premier says courthouse campers will be offered housing

Premier Christy Clark says homeless people camped on the lawn beside the Victoria Law Courts will eventually be asked to leave if they refuse to accept the province’s offer of housing.
An encampment outside the Victoria courthouse.

Premier Christy Clark says homeless people camped on the lawn beside the Victoria Law Courts will eventually be asked to leave if they refuse to accept the province’s offer of housing.

Clark offered no timeline for dealing with the burgeoning tent city at the corner of Burdett Avenue and Quadra Street. But she said Housing Minister Rich Coleman has dealt with similar issues in other communities and has a “good program” for resolving them.

“The first thing we’re doing is identifying housing for every single one of those people and offering it to them,” she said in an interview Wednesday.

“I mean, I think that’s what people would like us to do, right? These people need housing; we will work with each of them as individuals to find housing.”

But she made clear that there is a limit to the government’s patience. “If some of them decide after that, that they don’t want the housing, they’re going to be required to leave,” she said. “Because this is public land; it belongs to the citizens of the province.”

The province announced last week that it will provide about $380,000 for a new 40-bed temporary shelter. It has yet to name a location, but said discussions are taking place with a potential operator of the shelter, which would provide meals and other support.

Stephen Portman of Together Against Poverty Society questioned what Clark means by finding “housing” for the campers occupying an estimated 55 tents.

He said since the city’s shelters are full, if a new 24-7 facility was opened, many campers would likely take the option, but that’s only a short-term solution.

“That offer of a home better be a viable one and not just a shelter or a rent supplement, which is all that we’ve heard so far,” he said. “A home is not a shelter. A home is not a rent supplement.”

Noting the Victoria vacancy rate is well under one per cent, Portman said even people with jobs and $40,000 annual incomes are struggling to find affordable housing.

“The average bachelor [apartment] in Victoria rents for $716,” he said, while the shelter rate for B.C.’s disabled citizens and those on income assistance has been frozen since 2008 at $375 per month. “That has caused homelessness,” Portman said.,

If the province offers campers rent supplements, he said, they would be forced to compete for apartments with people who have full-time jobs and have not been sleeping rough for months, not to mention dealing with mental-health problems.

Meantime, outreach workers have been at the camp each day trying to connect people with support in the community, the Housing Ministry said in a statement.

The province’s economy will ultimately offer the most effective solution to homelessness by creating jobs and prosperity, Clark said. “To me … the ultimate solution to poverty is to have a growing economy where we have more benefits to share.”

But NDP Leader John Horgan said tent cities in Victoria and elsewhere, including Abbotsford and Maple Ridge, point to a broader problem.

Horgan said the longer-term solution requires investments in mental health and addictions services. “Those have been reduced over time on the B.C. Liberal watch. At the same time, we’re not bringing forward adequate rental housing or increasing housing allowances for those on disabilities.”

Horgan said he’s encouraged by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise to revive a national housing strategy. “If the federal government comes with federal dollars and the province steps up, I think that the three levels of government can address this.”

At the courthouse tent city, Andrey Moffatt, 21, said she is hoping the province will offer some form of co-op housing or “a ton of bachelor suites” — nothing fancy, but warm with a hot plate for cooking and a key to call her own.

Moffatt said she has been living in a tent at the encampment with her fiancé and their cat for more than a month. Victoria needs shelters specializing in youth and young adults, said Moffatt, who does not feel comfortable at Our Place.

Portman said the last time tent-city campers were forcibly removed in B.C., in Abbotsford, the B.C. Supreme Court found the displacement breached their charter rights to security of the person.

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