While Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps aims to get the city’s homeless population off the streets and into hotel rooms, experts question whether this is the right solution.
Bill Lewis, chair of the Hotel Association of Greater Victoria (HAGV), says that while they are sympathetic to the problem he believes the city needs to explore other options.
“Forcing homeless people into hotels who aren’t accustomed to dealing with any of the nature of issues that might come up [is not the right solution],” he says, adding the city should look at other government buildings or underutilized facilities, although he would not provide specific examples.
The HAGV’s biggest concern is the lack of resources they would be able to provide to the homeless population and feel that there are other agencies in the city that would be better suited.
Grant McKenzie, communications director at Our Place, says the people who are being housed in the 200 hotel rooms that have already been secured by the city are people who are more self-sufficient than those currently in Topaz Park or camped along Pandora Avenue.
“They tend to be people without addiction issues and if they have mental health issues they’re able to manage it through prescription medication,” he says.
Currently, there are 222 tents in Topaz Park and according to McKenzie the fire marshal has said the park is at capacity now. Along Pandora Avenue McKenzie estimates there are 80 to 100 tents, much closer together, that house 150 to 200 people.
“You can’t just take this whole population and put them in hotels, that wouldn’t work,” he says, remembering how “disruptive and chaotic” it was for the first year or so when those camping in the tent city behind the courthouse were moved to the Johnson Street Community building. McKenzie says the biggest challenge is finding people who can serve a supporting role for the vulnerable population.
At first, Victoria planned to move the homeless population to three different parks but only one park is being used.
“I don’t know how possible it is, but it’s almost like we need to take a military approach,” says McKenzie. “If there’s space on the navy base where you could put everyone in a protected area and then assess them on an individual basis … but that would take a lot of dedicated staff.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Our Place has had to stop utilizing its 800 volunteers and only use staff members to carry out daily tasks. McKenzie says the image of hundreds of tents sprawling in the park and on Pandora Avenue is a stark reminder of how big the issue surrounding housing is in Victoria.
“We can’t just ignore this problem,” he says. “It’s just not acceptable that we’ve basically abandoned hundreds of people and left them out on the street. [These are people] who are camping here because they have nowhere else to go and I think every municipality should be working together not just Victoria — that’s completely unfair — to come up with a viable long term solution.”