As the Oct. 24 provincial election approaches, Jack Knox is looking at Vancouver Island’s 14 ridings and some of the issues affecting them. Today: Victoria-Beacon Hill and Victoria-Swan Lake.
Thirty years ago, Victoria had the Apple Tree Gang.
They got their name from a tree near the Johnson Street Bridge. It’s where they would drink and sleep and sometimes die of exposure.
They were familiar downtown faces, a core group of maybe 15, plus a couple of dozen occasionals. Back then, Victorians called them panhandlers, not the homeless.
Sometimes other Victorians would bring them clothes or hot soup. Sometimes other Victorians would mug them instead. In 1992, businessman Michael Williams built the Apple Tree Gang a tin shelter by the bridge, but the authorities fenced off the site following a fire.
Eventually, several of the panhandlers moved into social housing, Tonto-Rosette House, which was named for Adolphus (Tonto) Whitehead and Art Rosette, who had both died of heroin overdoses. The best-known of the group was Sassy Jack, a fixture at Government and Yates. The tour bus drivers would encourage passengers to “say hello to Sassy.” The tourists would wave, and Sassy would wave back. Those were the days when there were few enough street people that we knew them by name.
But gradually the street-entrenched population grew, even while being shooed from place to place — the 700 block of Johnson to Cormorant Street to the Holiday Court to the 900 block of Pandora to a succession of tent cities.
No issue has sucked up more political oxygen this century than this gooey ball of affordability, mental illness, addiction, crime, disability and poverty.
In 2008, a push by then-mayor Alan Lowe led to the creation of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness. That group has done great work, but it has yet to reach the promise of its name: This year’s point-in-time count revealed more than 1,500 people categorized as homeless — 270 sleeping rough, 350 in emergency shelters, 145 couch-surfing, 743 in transitional housing or institutions.
That snapshot was taken March 11, just days before the pandemic hit full-force. Since then we’ve had a steady diet of stories of what feels like growing, incorrigible dysfunction, spawning a mix of anxiety, compassion and hostility in response. When VicPD released the results of its community survey on Wednesday, “social order” was by far the greatest concern of residents.
This isn’t just a local phenomenon, of course. Variations are heard from Duncan to Nanaimo, Prince George and Vancouver. But in the capital region, it’s the two Victoria ridings — Beacon Hill and Swan Lake — where the desire for answers is most pressing.
So, what do those running for office propose?
The New Democrats’ platform speaks of the recent addition of 2,800 units of supportive housing provincewide, a number it vows to increase to at least 5,000 as part of a 10-year plan. It also promises rent supplements for those moving on to independent living.
The platform also promises more front-line social services and mental health workers to support police, and more ACT teams (units of police, social-services workers and health professionals who work with people dealing with mental health and addiction) like those pioneered in Victoria. It also speaks of a community-safety fund that local governments can draw on to tackle street disorder and “challenges posed to businesses and neighbourhoods by increased visible homelessness as a result of the pandemic.”
The Liberals have accused the NDP of doing little more than warehousing people in hotels. The Liberals promise (albeit without detail) to increase funding for addiction-treatment and recovery programs, and to invest in getting homes for the homeless and providing the health and social service supports they need.
The party also vows to hire 200 more police officers and 100 more psychiatric social workers and nurses, and to establish more integrated teams to respond to mental-health calls.
The Greens also call for more integrated teams. Their plan includes $1 billion over four years for mental health care within the medical services plan, with increased counselling for the homeless being part of that. They advocate tackling the opioid crisis with more money for a safe supply of drugs, more money for harm-reduction service, and the decriminalization of the possession of drugs.
If dealing with all this will be a challenge, so will be — for the Liberals and Greens — dislodging the NDP from either of the Victoria ridings. The party took more than half the votes in each of the seats last time around.
In Victoria-Beacon Hill, UVic researcher and lecturer Grace Lore is the NDP’s choice to replace 15-year-incumbent Carole James, the finance minister and deputy premier, who announced in March that she would not run again after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. The Liberal is Karen Bill, a public policy analyst who lost to James in 2013 and 2017. The Greens are represented by activist and public servant Jenn Neilson. Also in the mix is independent candidate Jordan Reichert, who polled 102 votes in 2017, ran for Victoria city council in 2018 and ran federally for the Animal Protection Party in 2015 and 2019.
In Victoria-Swan Lake, New Democrat Rob Fleming, the education minister, will defend a seat he has held since since 2005. He is being challenged by David Somerville, legislative assistant to a handful of Liberal MLAs. The Green candidate is Annemieke Holthuis, a lawyer who advised the federal government on human rights and criminal law reform. Communist Walt Parsons and independent candidate Jenn Smith are also on the ballot.
• NDP — Rob Fleming 13,374 (53.61 per cent)
• Green — Christopher Alan Maxwell 7,413 (29.71 per cent)
• Liberal — Stacey Piercey 3,960 (15.87 per cent)
• Vancouver Island Party — David Costigane 203 (0.81 per cent)
• Voter turnout: 64.33 per cent
• NDP — Carole James 16,057 (53.05 per cent)
• Green — Kalen Harris 9,194 (30.38 per cent)
• Liberal — Karen Bill 4,689 (15.49 per cent)
• Libertarian — Art Lowe 190 (0.63 per cent)
• Independent — Jordan Reichert 102 (0.34 per cent)
• Independent — David Shebib 35 (0.11 per cent)
• Voter turnout: 64.20 per cent
• NDP — Grace Lore — gracelore.bcndp.ca
• Liberal — Karen Bill — bcliberals.com/team/karen-bill
• Green — Jenn Neilson — jennneilson.ca
• Independent — Jordan Reichert — jordanreichert.ca
• NDP — Rob Fleming* — robfleming.bcndp.ca
• Liberal — David Somerville — bcliberals.com/team/david-somerville
• Green — Annemieke Holthuis — bcgreens.ca/annemieke_holthuis
• Communist — Walt Parsons — cpcbc.ca
• Independent — Jenn Smith — jennsmith.ca