Here is the our COVID-19 update from Friday July 10th as well as an announcement about Beacon Hill Park. The Beacon Hill Park coverage starts at 7:16.
We are not health care providers or professionals. We are not housing providers. So, when shelters closed or cut their numbers to adhere to physical distancing guidelines, and when people couch surfing had to leave because of no-guest policies, the City sought out the best advice on how we could help the hundreds of people left to sleep outside.
And the best advice from health care professionals was to allow individuals to shelter in place, in a tent if needed, until housing options can be found for them. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry recently reaffirmed this direction.
And we intend to continue to be compassionate and to respect the human rights of those that are without homes during a pandemic. We are aware that individuals have been seeking temporary shelter in Beacon Hill Park. The park contains approximately 50 acres of land which is available for temporary sheltering. It also contains 93 acres of land which is either environmentally sensitive or culturally significant to First Nations peoples.
The environmentally sensitive areas of the park contain a number of distinct and fragile ecosystems which the City has worked hard to protect and maintain. Rare and endangered plants have been documented as experiencing significant damage from people sheltering in these areas. The Garry oak ecosystems in Beacon Hill Park are part of a protected and endangered natural system, which less than 5% remains in B.C. Protecting these areas is critical to maintaining biodiversity in the city, which is key in light of climate change.
That’s why today I announced that the City of Victoria has applied to B.C. Supreme Court for a court order to require people to move from the environmentally sensitive areas of the park so that we can protect these areas them from further damage. The City’s application does not ask the Court to stop people from sheltering in Beacon Hill Park, or any other city parks; it requests that people move from the areas with sensitive ecosystems.
City staff along with community outreach workers have been meeting regularly for weeks with people sheltering in Beacon Hill Park, requesting that they move to less sensitive areas of the park. Staff and outreach workers will continue to meet daily with people sheltering in the park to assist them with moving to appropriate areas and to connect them with provincial housing supports and health services. Many people have already relocated and the City expects everyone to move willingly.
I know there are many residents who feel no one should be camping in Beacon Hill Park.
I hear those concerns. And I too am concerned that there are people sleeping in our parks. I wish that we had a magic wand and could fix the problem.
But there are no magic wands. Homelessness is a complex issue that has been caused over many years and exacerbated by the pandemic. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The first round of homelessness, as noted above, was created when shelters reduced their number and people living precariously already moved. I expect that as government subsidies are removed and some people can’t pay their rent, we will see another wave of pandemic-related homelessness.
We are not alone here in Victoria, there are 40 encampments across the province with between 1000 and 1200 people living in them. Unfortunately, until there are housing solutions, individuals who do not have a home, or a place where they can stay, require a place to shelter.
Previous court decisions have recognized the right of people who are experiencing homelessness to shelter in municipal parks if there is not enough shelter space or affordable housing available.
To those sheltering, I want to say that no one is being forced to leave the park, but we do expect that you will relocate to one of the many less environmentally fragile areas and that you will keep your site as clean as possible, recognizing that you are sharing the park with other members of the public.
To others using the park who are not sheltering there, I do have one specific request: please don’t take pictures of people who are sheltering, or their sites. This causes unnecessary friction. I had one man call my office last week who said he is living in the park, would rather not be, and could the mayor ask people to stop taking pictures. So I’m asking on his behalf. Rest assured that our staff know where people are sheltering, as do service providers.
I biked through on Saturday and saw hundreds of people there The playgrounds were full, there were picnickers, strollers, bikers, people of all ages. It breaks my heart that there are residents that don’t feel safe in our jewel of a park. It also breaks my heart that there are people living outside during a pandemic.
Even though there are people who need to take shelter in the park, it is still a space for everyone. And it’s an opportunity for all of us – housed and unhoused – to share this community space together.
The temperature has hit a bit of a boiling point and there are fears on both so-called sides. We are all in this together, housed and un-housed. There can be no us and them in a strong and resilient community. And I believe that Victoria is a strong and resilient community.
We continue to work closely with the Province, BC Housing and Island Health, and we continue to advocate to the federal government to match the Province’s funding for motels and modular housing. A lot has been done already and we are grateful for that, but there is so much more need, here, and across the province and the country.
The pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities that were hidden in our society. And we are seeing that the most vulnerable in our society are suffering the most, from our seniors in care homes, to low-income people, to people who are homeless.
This pandemic is far from over, as Dr. Henry has said recently. Cities across Canada are all struggling with the same challenges – with many implementing the same temporary fixes. We may be opening up a bit, but let’s not forget that we were already facing both a housing and an opioid crisis, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded these already difficult challenges for this vulnerable group.
So while we work through these challenging times together, while we work through the next few months sharing the park -– housed and unhoused – let’s all remember Dr. Henry’s words: be kind, be calm, and be safe.