Comment: Tent city must not define us as a community

Here’s what’s true: We’re having our best tourism year to date — even better than 2015, and that was a record year.

Downtown, 21 building projects are underway, including more than 1,000 new residential units; soon many new people will call downtown home. One building, the Hudson Walk One, will be ready for occupancy Aug. 1. It has about 150 suites and about 800 people who want to rent them. And, for the first time in many years, we’ve seen a decrease in retail vacancies — new businesses are breathing new life into Victoria’s downtown.

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Here’s what’s also true: There is a tent city in our downtown. It’s having a negative impact on nearby residents. It’s hurting nearby businesses. And it is a difficult living situation for 70 to 80 people who are still homeless and unfortunate enough to live in tents in Canada in 2016, despite the provincial government’s recent purchase of Mount Edwards and opening of Choices and My Place Transitional Housing. These places are all full.

We are not alone. A quick search revealed at least five tent cities in British Columbia right now. Red Deer, Alta., had one in 2015. Toronto had a big one from 1998 to 2002 and another this spring. Winnipeg had a small one in the summer of 2013. And on it goes.

Why the crisis? In 1989, the federal government invested $114 per Canadian in affordable housing. By 2014, the federal government invested $58 per Canadian. During this period, the population of Canada grew by 30 per cent. The 2016 federal budget begins to close this gap. But it will take a while for shovels to hit the ground.

While the tent city might be a symbol of a challenge we face as a city, region, province and country, we mustn’t let it divide us from each other or from our neighbours. And we must not let it define us as a city.

I have seen Facebook posts suggesting that a good solution to homelessness is to gas people as at a Nazi concentration camp (a picture of Auschwitz was posted for emphasis). Council received an email suggesting “why not get a bulldozer and push all those bums out of the park into the ocean?”

These are just two of many such comments. Substitute “bums” or “homeless” with “women” or “blacks” or “gays” and we’d all be outraged. And we should be equally outraged by discrimination against people who are poor and homeless.

And I have seen some people responding to these kinds of hate comments who insinuate that everyone who has concerns about tent city is a “hater” or is biased against poor people.

The senior on fixed income taking additional expensive asthma medicine because of the fires, the mom who wants her kids to feel safe coming and going from school, the small-business owner who has had someone injecting drugs in her store and doesn’t know what to do or how to help aren’t expressing bias, they are voicing very real concerns.

The people who are Mad as Hell and the people who want Homes Not Hate both have important perspectives and both need to be listened to. We need real dialogue on these issues, not further polarization.

Let’s all read James Hoggan’s book, being launched this week at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up. And then let’s talk.

Let’s also remember that Victoria is more than its tent city. The province is working to provide housing and health care to the people living in tents — soon, we hope. As a city, let’s support them. But let’s also put our energy and focus into our burgeoning tech sector, our arts and innovation, our stellar small businesses, our entrepreneurial ecosystem that is starting to flourish.

And finally, let’s accept that Victoria is changing. In fact, perhaps tent city is a growing pain, a disruption to our collective consciousness. As my colleague Coun. Margaret Lucas says: “This isn’t Mayberry anymore.”

Victoria is becoming a big city. I’m not talking Vancouver or Seattle. Think Copenhagen or Stockholm with a Pacific Northwest flavour; these are big, world-class cities but they also have a livable human scale. Being a big city in the 21st century brings challenges and complexities, but even more it brings opportunities. And these are ours to seize.

Lisa Helps is the mayor of Victoria.

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