At national webinar, Helps calls for more federal aid on homelessness

More federal support to tackle homelessness is needed during a global health pandemic in which staying home is “doctor’s orders,” Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps says.

Helps took part in a webinar Thursday with municipal leaders across Canada on the right to housing and how framing solutions to homelessness founded on this right can help local governments end the housing crisis.

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“I think this right to housing — or, better yet, right to home — is going to be a really important conversation to shift some of the public sentiment,” she said.

Helps said the webinar, which featured leaders from Toronto, Kitchener, Edmonton and Yellowknife, was a reminder that homelessness is a national issue that requires collaboration at all three levels of government.

“We heard from coast to coast to coast, whether it’s a small city like Yellowknife or a large city like Toronto, this is something that everybody is grappling with and that COVID has made it worse,” Helps said.

She noted the province has spent tens of millions of dollars buying and leasing motels in Victoria to house people in the pandemic, while the federal government has contributed $1.3 million to address pandemic-related homelessness in the city “It’s not equal and so we all need the federal government to step up and match the province’s tremendous leadership,” she said.

Helps said she has written to the federal government to support the province’s request for more investment in housing during the pandemic, and the city is having weekly meetings with the province to solve the crisis.

About 100 people are sheltering in tents in Beacon Hill Park, and more are living in Centennial Square and other parts of the city. Some housed residents in the city say the presence of tents and homeless people in Beacon Hill makes them feel unsafe.

More than 21,000 people have signed an online petition, started by Cynthia Diadick, to not allow camping in Beacon Hill Park, citing threats of violence, and concerns 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.

“I think there’s maybe a sense out there that we’re not doing anything and if we would just work harder, Beacon Hill Park would be cleared and people would be inside, but I can guarantee you that we are working very hard on this issue literally every day with the province,” Helps said in an interview.

Other leaders in the webinar shared the same struggles with homelessness and tent encampments that Victoria has seen exacerbated during the pandemic. Toronto Deputy Mayor Ana Bailão said that city has seen an increase in encampments in recent months, as well as about 8,000 people staying in shelters, at the same time as 1,300 people have been housed.

Bailão said the closure of many resources and shelters has led to an influx of people into the city seeking supports, creating more pressure on Toronto’s resources. Helps said in the webinar that Victoria’s geography and access to resources have also drawn people in need to the city.

Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic said his city has come together to work toward solutions. A business owner opened up his industrial property, where 40 people are now living in individual units. “It was so much better than these tent encampments that were just popping up all over the place,” he said.

Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty said the municipality is limited by what the territorial and federal governments will fund. “The challenge is we’re a community of 20,000, and to say the municipality is going to take it on and if the territorial and federal government leave us hanging, well, we won’t really be able to do much. In the end, we are kind of chasing the dollars,” she said.

Helps said she’ll continue to work toward getting people inside before winter hits.

The webinar was hosted by Mary Rowe, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute, a registered charity that aims to facilitate collaboration among local leaders across the country to build livable and resilient cities.

The webinar was part of a week of events focused on the right to housing and how to rebuild better cities after the pandemic.

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