Controversy over the possibility of a designated temporary tenting area in the City of Victoria has prompted a healthy dialogue over how best to respond to the homelessness emergency in our region.
Issues relating to people seeking shelter in parks and alleyways is not new, reflecting provincial, national and international trends, including: changes within the Canadian economy and labour force; a retreat by all levels of government from necessary supports for people in need, including health, housing and income supports; deinstitutionalization in mental health; and addiction issues in the absence of harm reduction and treatment services.
The City of Victoria faces the impact of these forces and since 2009 has been mandated by the BC Court of Appeal to permit overnight sheltering in city parks for people who lack adequate alternate shelter. This has resulted in growing numbers of people seeking shelter in parks, including small neighbourhood parks that lack sanitation, security, and support services, and require people who are homeless to break camp each morning and relocate with their belongings.
Victoria City Council has responded by recommitting to a “Housing First” strategy and quadrupling the annual contribution to affordable housing, while also directing staff to explore options for interim sheltering to improve the situation for people sleeping in parks as well as reduce impacts on the broader community. Two pilot projects are being explored: (1) a designated temporary tenting area or areas; (2) a micro-housing village modeled on examples in the Pacific Northwest.
City Council has heard loud and clear that many members of the public believe investment in long-term supportive housing is preferable to interim measures such as temporary tenting areas. As a result, I have developed a proposal with Councillor Jeremy Loveday, Mayor Lisa Helps, Capital Regional Hospital District Chair Dave Howe and other colleagues for a Regional Housing First Strategy.
“Housing First” is the idea that housing is the first essential form of support for people to achieve stability in their lives and address other challenges. Organizations such as the Victoria Cool Aid Society and Pacifica Housing operate hundreds of supportive housing units in our community, providing safe, affordable apartments with support staff for people who in a previous era may have been relegated to top-down institutionalized care.
Studies show that investing in “housing first” is the most cost-effective response to homelessness, with considerable cost savings on policing, hospitalization, criminal justice, prisons, and municipal parks and street maintenance. This model has been successfully implemented by local government jurisdictions such as the City of Medicine Hat, Alberta.
Mayor Helps, Councillor Loveday, Chair Howe and I are proposing that the Capital Regional Hospital District serve as the lead agency to develop and implement a plan for the construction of 367 units of supportive housing to eliminate visible homelessness by 2018. If addressed regionally, the construction cost would total $11 per household per year, with the province requested to provide operating funds for this necessary health service, estimated at $7.7-million per year.
This seems to be a reasonable and modest expenditure to improve the health outcomes and wellbeing of our most marginalized citizens, while reducing the impacts of homelessness on the wider community. I invite you to help advance these objective by advocating for a Regional Housing First Strategy.
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