A commentary by the mayor of Victoria.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, British Columbians have been guided by the calm and thoughtful advice of the provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Following her advice and working together, we’ve flattened the curve. Yet, while it may be starting to feel as if COVID-19 is behind us with the city opening up, Henry cautioned this week: “The pandemic is far from over.”
When the pandemic hit, shelters for people experiencing homelessness closed or cut their numbers to adhere to physical-distancing guidelines. This reduced capacity, combined with the closure of other services, meant that the only option left for many people was to sleep outside.
At that time, the city made a decision to allow people to leave their tents up during the day in order to help people who had no homes follow the doctor’s orders and “stay at home.” As I’m learning from participating in the National Working Group on Homelessness and Housing in COVID-19, cities across the country are finding themselves in similar situations. We are not alone in this challenge.
Encampments are growing in size and number across the country, as an outcome of the pandemic. And cities are struggling to manage the inflow of people into encampments and responding to the additional concerns of large tent cities.
In British Columbia, the provincial government stepped up in a big way. In a six-week period, it provided indoor sheltering, medical care and other supports to hundreds of people. Yet there are still hundreds left behind, living outside. Many of them are in Beacon Hill Park, with others camped outside our offices at City Hall.
This past week saw hundreds of emails, a petition and social- media rallying cries to remove people camping in Beacon Hill Park. The writers and petitioners want the park for much-needed recreation after many weeks of self-isolation and staying inside. They are also worried about the Garry oak meadows, the camas fields and the sensitive ecosystems. I am, too.
I’m also worried about the majority of Victorians who are renters, many of whom don’t have backyards and therefore count on parks and greenspaces for recreation and exercise. And, a significant portion of Victoria’s renters are lower-income families; they can’t afford to take their kids to Parksville or Qualicum this summer. Picnics and play dates in Beacon Hill Park are their summer vacations.
It’s an impossible situation to navigate, balancing all these needs in a public-health emergency. And so, as we all have many times in the past months, we turn to Henry for advice and guidance.
On June 8, Henry wrote to mayors, regional district chairs and chief administrative officers with guidelines and best practices for the response to homeless-encampment health issues in the context of COVID-19.
She said: “These guidelines also consider how local governments can help support and reduce health and safety risks for vulnerable groups through discretion in bylaw enforcement, provision of outreach and supports and by partnering to provide harm-reduction, mental-health and addictions services.”
The guidelines clearly state that “local governments can help support people experiencing homelessness to reduce health risks and to improve access to essential services, supplies and supports. This may include looking at any bylaws that require people experiencing homelessness to move or leave safe shelter, be that a park or vehicle. Clearing or moving encampments without providing shelter or housing immediately can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers.”
This means that we will likely have people camping in parks until the pandemic is over, Henry gives us updated advice or more indoor sheltering locations can be secured.
Of course, in the calm and kind manner we’ve all come to expect from her, the guidelines also speak to the need for certain ground rules to be in place for everyone’s safety, and for camping to happen in appropriate places.
As the petitioners rightly point out, areas with sensitive ecosystems in Beacon Hill Park are not appropriate. This means that people will need to move from the ecologically sensitive areas to other parts of Beacon Hill Park, or other parks.
What can we all do to help in these unprecedented times?
We can thank the provincial government for its significant investment, and we can ask the federal government to match it to purchase more motels.
We can ask all local governments in the CRD to work with the province to build permanent, purpose-built modular housing with supports. We’re going to need hundreds of units.
And most of all, we can be calm and be kind. The pandemic is far from over. Rather than let the challenge of homelessness divide us, we need to continue to come together as a community to get through it.
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