Victoria councillors, two of them in tears, agreed Thursday to a plan to help people camping in city parks, approving measures that could cost up to $350,000, including the possibility of creating a community of tiny homes.
The governance and priorities committee recommended to council a wide swath of moves that includes:
• Start looking to increase the number of overnight shelter spaces from the current year-round number of 260.
• Investigate and report by July on the designation of specific spots for tenting within certain city parks, with Topaz, Royal Athletic, Banfield and Stadacona parks listed as likely locations.
• Begin a workshop to look at building a small community, about one acre, of micro-houses — small shelters about the size of garden sheds — for homeless people.
Speaking in support, Coun. Charlayne Thornton Joe became emotional, and wiped her eyes frequently, as she spoke in favour of the options proposed.
“Many of us are just one paycheque away from sleeping in a park,” she said. “We have to have more humane ways of dealing with this issue.”
Mayor Lisa Helps, who confessed to getting choked up herself, said after the meeting that the likely first moves would be the “easy” ones that address the visible issues that citizens complain most about.
For example, the city can quickly improve bathroom facilities where people tent, establish garbage collection and cleanup, and hire an outreach worker.
More difficult, she added, will be dealing with underlying social issues that contribute to the homelessness problem.
In the meeting, Helps said that past work on homelessness has shown her the number of people sleeping in shelters is increasing in Victoria.
“Things are getting worse, not better,” she said.
“The fact we are even having this conversation is proof something is just not working.”
The lone councillor to vote against the wide-ranging plan was Geoff Young, who said he thought it was unfair to put the entire problem on the backs of Victoria residents, leaving out suburban communities.
“We are dividing people into two groups: those who live in the central cities and want to help, and those who live in the suburbs and don’t care,” Young said during the meeting.
He said he feared Victoria, by committing itself to a “Housing First” approach to beat homelessness, was behaving too simply.
“ ‘Housing First’ has become ‘Housing is Enough,’ ” Young said. “I don’t think that’s the case.”
He also suggested when parks are discussed for things like overnight tenting, the nearby residents must be consulted.
Young even suggested city councillors should consider allowing tenting next to city hall in Centennial Square. After all, it already has 24-hour bathrooms patrolled by security.
“We should ask our citizens what they think of city hall as a place [for tenting],” Young said.
“Why should it happen in Topaz or Banfield, but not outside our windows?” he said.
A short time later, Helps instructed city bureaucrats to look at whether people might tent in the Fisgard Street city parkade adjacent to Centennial Square.