British Columbia

Victoria mayor says 'city can't do anything' about addiction, homelessness without help

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps says the city has very little land left to make available for affordable housing and provincial and federal support is critical to address homelessness and addiction in the provincial capital.

Mayor Lisa Helps says city has 'coughed up' all land available for supportive housing

Victoria's mayor says the city does not have the resources to effectively tackle homelessness and addiction. (Shutterstock)

The provincial capital is seeing an uptick in the number of drug users and homeless people sleeping on a street in the downtown core and the city's mayor says there is not much more the municipality can do about it. 

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said she commutes to work along the 900 block of Pandora Avenue, where frontline workers estimate 60-80 people huddle regularly outside Victoria's safe consumption site and Our Place Society, which provides services for the city's homeless. Helps called the situation "sad and despairing" but said the municipality needs other levels of government to step in to help solve it.

Helps told CBC's On The Island in a phone interview the city is doing what it can for drug users by supporting a safe consumption site, but there needs to be more accompanying services for addicts.

"I don't just mean 28 days, I mean long-term treatment," said Helps, adding people are ending up back on Pandora Avenue because there are "fundamentally not enough treatment beds" or supportive housing units available to them.

Helps says Victoria's homeless and addicted desperately need supportive housing, where a range of on-site services such as health support and life skills building are available to help tenants stabilize their lives.

Frontline workers in Victoria say there are visibly more drug users and homeless people on Victoria streets these days. (Deborah Wilson/CBC)

She said land is required to create housing with these "wraparound supports," and the province wants the city to make land available, which Helps says just isn't possible.

"We've coughed up every piece of land that we have," said Helps. "We could start taking away surface parking lots, but I don't know that that's the best idea, although it's not something that I would rule out."

She wants the province to buy land and then use it for supportive housing projects. Helps said a provincially-funded supportive housing project set to open in January 2020 on Blanshard Street for 21 Indigenous homeless women is a model she would like to more of in the Capital Regional District. 

And while the province can purchase land, funding for building is the federal government's responsibility. Ottawa is also the only level of government that can grant service providers the permission to distribute clean drugs to users.

More than 4,500 people have died from drug overdoses in B.C. since 2016, the year the province declared a public health emergency, and coroners' reports show fentanyl was involved in approximately 85 per cent of those deaths. 

"The city can't do anything," said Helps. "We don't have the resources and so that's the heartbreaking problem."

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story mistakenly stated that the City of Victoria provides a safe consumption site. In fact, the site is provided by Island Health and the city supports the site.
    Sep 12, 2019 8:30 AM PT

With files from On The Island and Adam van der Zwan

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