Super InTent City makes homelessness visible in our city. It makes visible the situation that people are in need of adequate income and housing and that people, regardless of income, have a right to participate in decisions that affect their lives.
I applaud the courage, knowledge, talent and activism by people experiencing homelessness. As a researcher who has never experienced homelessness, I know how important this wisdom is in developing solutions to homelessness and that this wisdom is often consistent with other types of evidence.
In short, that is what is missing and wrong with the recent efforts by the province of B.C. in responding to the residents of Super InTent City on the lawn of the Victoria courthouse.
To date, the province has offered temporary shelter in two locations (My Place and the Youth Custody Centre) and transitional housing (Mount Edwards Court).
First, these are temporary solutions and inconsistent with evidence-based practices for addressing homelessness such as Housing First. Housing First means placement directly into permanent housing with the offer of supports tailored to individual needs.
Second, they have failed to employ the wisdom of people experiencing homelessness in designing solutions. In fact, instead of working with homeless people to create long-term, permanent housing solutions, Rich Coleman, the B.C. housing minister, is cited in a newspaper article as saying homeless campers should be celebrating, not complaining.
There are key differences between shelter and housing. A shelter is not a space you can call your own; it does not have a door you can lock and often means sharing a room with people you have never met or do not know. While transitional housing might offer you a door to lock, it is, as the name suggests, transitional and temporary, not permanent.
In Victoria, 277 people are on the waiting list for supportive housing, and the vacancy rate in market housing costing under $700 a month is less than one per cent. So, even with a rent supplement to access market housing, the unavailability of market housing makes it close to impossible to find affordable market rent on a fixed income.
And this is not only a concern for people who are on social assistance. James Bay seniors have begun speaking out about “renovictions” as they are evicted from their homes under the guise of renovations, rents are increased and they are no longer able to access their once-affordable housing.
The Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness developed a housing priority list to identify opportunities to increase the supply of supportive and low-income housing. Kudos to the province for taking action to invest in new sites and secure Mount Edwards, which has the potential to be permanent housing.
Clearly, provincial officials have the power and resources to take action when needed, but they clearly missed the mark in offering a youth detention centre as a shelter. Are they completely unaware of the role that institutionalization and criminalization play in the life histories of people who are homeless and the potential for re-traumatization that accompanies such an option?
The current offerings are not only temporary, and inconsistent with current evidence, but confuse housing with home. A house may or may not be a home. While a house is a physical location, a home is where you feel safe and welcome and experience a sense of belonging. Some of us are privileged enough to have both in the same place, but that is not always the case.
Many residents of Super InTent City have found a home and community on the courthouse lawn.
The province has suggested people should be celebrating with the offer of temporary spaces, but in reality, they are being asked to give up their home and become part of the “homelessness industry.” The “homelessness industry” perpetuates homelessness and costs more.
Canadian studies of Housing First found that for every $10 invested, there were $3.42 to $9.60 in savings. Removing signs of visible homelessness by displacing Super Intent City will not address homelessness or reduce costs; adding permanent housing options will. Further, if we want to get those options right, we need to engage and benefit from the collective wisdom of the residents of Super InTent City.
Super InTent City should not be displaced until there are permanent solutions and a process for respectfully and meaningfully engaging people living in poverty in the process of developing and delivering those solutions. We will all benefit.
Bernie Pauly is associate professor of nursing and a scientist with the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. at the University of Victoria.