Sunday, May 17, 2020

Social distancing and homelessness - COVID in Victoria BC

Topaz Park homeless encampment, Victoria BC
- Photo courtesty of Victoria Buzz

by Jon Munn

GUEST BLOG – This week’s blog tells a story of how COVID-19 affects the homeless, just as it does communities around the world. The blog was submitted by Jon Munn, an urban planner and SafeGrowth Advocate residing in Victoria, British Columbia. Jon is directly involved in the crisis as a member of a local neighborhood action committee. This is his story about how one city is responding to that problem. 

COVID-19 has revealed long-standing weaknesses in our health and social systems. The least resilient long-term care homes are showing high death counts. Physical distancing in homeless shelters and couch surfing reveals how huge spaces are needed when health orders force marginalized people to spread out in convention centres, hockey arenas, parking lots, and playing fields.

Homelessness is tough to tackle because it’s not one issue. It’s a result of housing costs, lack of social housing, domestic abuse, mental illness, drug addiction, and so on. The easy thing to do is to combine all these issues into one hot potato and pass the potato.

COVID-19 restrictions came to British Columbia on March 17, 2020. The Provincial Health Officer made an order to prohibit gatherings over 50 people. The next day a provincial emergency was declared and local governments and agencies closed or restricted services to ensure a physical distance of 2 metres (6 feet) between people.

Provincial parliament in Victoria,  the capital of British Columbia
photo Joe Mabel, Creative Commons

Victoria, a city of 90,000 people in the Capital region of 350,000, is the location of most regional services for homeless people. At the start of the crisis, hundreds of shelter spaces in the city were almost emptied, so on March 23rd, the Victoria Mayor announced outdoor shelters (tent camping) in three parks. Due to limited ability to staff the parks, Topaz Park near Victoria’s northern boundary remained the only site.

Topaz Park behind fencing


The first victim was communication. Perhaps the mayor felt she was pressured into a decide-announce-defend position by the health authorities? The police chief got stuck in the middle as an emergency spokesperson. If homelessness was a regional issue, there was a deafening silence from neighbouring municipalities. Topaz Park neighbours were not involved or notified. Whose agenda was being served by punting the homeless hot potato north? The wealthier city residents to the south? The downtown business community? Was this a plan the mayor had all along?

The provincial health order had commitments to help vulnerable populations, but there was no plan in place to move people into the many vacant hotel rooms in this tourist city. Authorities knew they needed a safety plan or risk a repeat of a 2015 homeless protest and police actions. This time Victorians generously donated tents for the first of two encampments. Tents emerged two kilometers north at Topaz Park shortly after. In effect, there were now two hot potatoes.

Some of the homeless tents prior to relocation


In the communication vacuum, neighbourhood activists emerged at the nearby Quadra Village Community Centre. The Board at the Centre and its neighbourhood action committee (NAC) wanted to know how to deal with what could be a permanent crime-ridden tent city in their park – one of the city’s largest. Alternatively, could better solutions be found? The federal and provincial governments were offering up money and their hands were forced to act by physical distancing.

I got involved with the NAC for my expertise in community and land use planning. The NAC needed to know how decisions were being made and if there was any way to influence the course of events, so we decided to try and break down some communication silos.

The first ally was the police chief, who was willing to attend a community Zoom meeting on April 9th. The chief brought camp organizers from the nonprofit Coalition to End Homelessness. The meeting revealed the initiative was understaffed and barely able to get sanitary and camp areas organized. Community members said they expected more. The overdose deaths of four people in the Topaz Park camp was discussed widely, as were police reports of increased property crime near the park. The situation got more media attention.

Security at one of the Topaz Park entrances

NAC members volunteered at Topaz Park and found that an assessment of the campers' needs was already done. It wasn’t complete, but work was underway to look at individuals’ needs instead of moving people in one group as ‘campers.’ Specific hotels or other locations could then be staffed with people to address mental health, drug addiction or other needs. Without such supports, the game of hot potato would return.

On Saturday, April 25, a press conference was called and a new provincial COVID order was made by Provincial authorities. The order moved homeless people into hotel rooms or other shelters by May 9, 2020, and camp areas would be cleared. In all locations, local government resources were too poor to effect change.

A second Quadra Village-Topaz Park community zoom meeting was held on April 29, 2020. Over half of the 67 registrants didn’t attend, perhaps believing the provincial actions would address the concerns. Provincial Housing and health officials, as well as local police attending the meeting, did not instill complete confidence, but they came with deeper pockets and a transition plan for campers.


The two reasons to have faith in the COVID homeless relocation come from previous commitments by the federal and provincial governments.

First, in 2016, the government of Canada gave support to a health-based harm reduction and Housing First approach to create an environment for stabilizing homeless people who were also involved with drug use.

Second, in 2017 BC Housing announced the Rapid Response to Homelessness (including modular housing) as an immediate response to the growing issue of homelessness across the Province. The magic of modular housing was that it could be constructed quickly, some projects in as little as three months.

Some homeless will relocate temporarily to the Victoria hockey arena
Photo J. Newall, Creative Commons

One key question remains about Victoria’s Topaz Park: Will we have faith in the system, or will we be looking at fields of mud and used needles by the time the winter rains return?

Part of this story will unfold by May 20, 2020. Only one modular housing project, now in development, has been slated for the Victoria region. A long term issue will be to secure land for modular and other Housing First units, which is a difficult task in a region with low land supply and high costs.

Has COVID helped spur more comprehensive action on the complex issues of homelessness in Victoria? Will economic, social, or political snags trip it up? Stay tuned… these are strange times!

1 Reply so far - Add your comment

Mateja said...

Thank you for your blog, Jon! This is certainly an interesting problem that was only exacerbated by the COVID-19. I'm hopeful that momentum will instigate some positive changes in dealing with the homelessness situation worldwide.
Here's an interesting article on the topic of homeless encampment sweeps: