British Columbia

Victoria pushes to prioritize housing for those who have been in town longer than a year

Only 12 per cent of homeless people in Greater Victoria have lived there for less than a year, according to the latest homelessness count.

Only 12 per cent of homeless people in Greater Victoria have lived there for less than a year

Homeless people, young and old are living in public parks around Victoria, some in tents, others wrapped in plastic tarps and blankets. Mayor Lisa Helps says she expects to see the number of people experiencing homelessness to increase and not improve anytime soon. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

Victoria's city council unanimously passed a motion last week urging local authorities to prioritize housing for homeless residents who have lived in Greater Victoria for a year or more.

Though Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps is pleased the motion passed with unanimous support, she acknowledges that choosing who's most deserving of housing is not ideal. 

"Prioritizing people is basically a Band-Aid," Helps told CBC News. "The real solution is for significant investments, particularly from the federal [government], but also the provincial government." 

But, for now, vulnerable populations deserve greater support, and it's not fair for newcomers to receive housing before local residents, the mayor said.

The council vote highlights the struggle many B.C. cities face: How to provide even-handed support to the local homeless community with limited resources? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to more homeless people receiving housing. As of July 24, 505 people in Victoria have moved into temporary housing to facilitate physical distancing.

Precedent exists

Mayor Helps is confident the policy group that steers the region's supportive housing policy will support the proposal passed by council. 

The motion pointed to other island municipalities that already prioritize local homeless residents over recent arrivals, including Courtenay, where people who have lived in the community for three years or more take precedence. 

Victoria police and city crews cleared out the remaining campers and their belongings at the former tent city on Pandora Avenue in May. (James Roberts/CBC)

The policy group's advisory committee includes representatives from B.C. Housing, Island Health, the Capital Regional District and a host of other community organizations and stakeholders.

Thursday's motion passed two days after the release of Greater Victoria's 2020 homelessness count, which found only 12 per cent of local homeless people have lived in the area for less than a year, down five per cent from 2018. 

According to this year's count, 42 per cent of those surveyed said they've lived in Greater Victoria for more than five years, while more than 20 per cent said they've "always been here."

The findings, which largely mirror data collected in 2018, challenge the notion of Victoria as a popular destination for homeless people across Canada seeking to escape the bitter cold and take advantage of extensive support services, according to a local expert. 

"[Homelessness] is very much deeply rooted in poverty and a lack of financial resources," said Bernie Pauly, a professor at the University of Victoria's nursing school. "It's not like you have the resources to be able to jump on an airplane or jump on a ferry to go somewhere."

Indigenous people over-represented

The latest homelessness count, on March 11, recorded 1,523 people living in Greater Victoria without a permanent home — only two people fewer than the last count in 2018. Of those, 270 people had no shelter whatsoever, according to the survey. 

However, the Capital Regional District (CRD) said the homelessness count is likely an "underestimate," as some refuse to participate and others can't be reached.

A message to passersby at one of Victoria's previous homeless encampments, located on the lawn of the provincial courthouse. After existing for almost a year, authorities shut down the camp in August 2016. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

The survey also showed 35 per cent of Greater Victoria's homeless community identifies as Indigenous, despite Indigenous people making up just five per cent of the local population. 

Meanwhile, the count documented 42 children or "dependents" experiencing homelessness, with 28 per cent sleeping in cars or without shelter.

End of CERB 

Thanks to the recent influx of interim housing in the region, Kelly Roth, executive director of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, said she believes the local homelessness count would be significantly lower — by as many as 600 people — if done today.

But Pauly believes that claim is "overstated." 

Pauly, a scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, supports recent measures to put roofs over heads but says it's only one part of the solution.

"Does it mean that we're stopping people from falling into homelessness? No."

It's a mistake to think adding housing stops the "flow into homelessness," she said, pointing to the ongoing lack of affordable housing and today's insecure job market.

"You have to stop those other factors."

She worries about what may happen after the federal government ends the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) this fall, fearing a spike in homelessness.

Mayor Helps shares Pauly's concern.

"There are still people who are on the CERB," said Helps. "I think we will see more evictions and more people ending up homeless as a result of the pandemic. I think the worst has yet to hit."

With files from Cory Correia

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