For Cameron LeBlanc, a B.C. government order to clear three homeless encampments – two in Victoria, one in Vancouver – brought a profound change to his life, which he says had gone off track.
When the order came on April 24, Mr. LeBlanc was living in Victoria’s Topaz Park, where city officials had approved a tent site that was supposed to provide a safe place for people to live as other facilities were closed because of COVID-19 precautions.
As public-health officials called for physical distancing, he lived steps away from other campers. Urged to practise careful hygiene, he relied on portable toilets. He slept in fits and starts.
Currently, Mr. LeBlanc is living in a room at a Travelodge hotel, one of several leased by the provincial government to provide temporary housing to people who had been homeless during the pandemic.
He has a lock on his door, his own shower and access to meals and health services.
He considers himself lucky.
“It has significantly changed my life, it made me kind of nervous and seemed too good to be true,” Mr. LeBlanc told The Globe and Mail in an interview outside the building.
He said he has been homeless for about five years, which he attributes to struggles with drug use and depression. For the first time in a while, he feels hopeful about his future.
“I’m eating a lot better, taking better care of myself. I have more of a sense of responsibility. There’s a lot of familiar faces here; it’s like a family.”
The B.C. government’s effort to get people off the street has meant profound changes for hundreds of people, including Mr. LeBlanc. The process has also resulted in anger and dismay from neighbourhood residents wondering whether the solution put together in response to a pandemic has resulted in new problems.
The process has also underscored the dire shortage of affordable housing throughout the province, a problem that existed long before the pandemic and has become more visible as people are being urged to stay home even though some may not have that option.
Those questions are rumbling in the Victoria neighbourhood of Burnside Gorge.
In 2018, Burnside Gorge secured a promise from BC Housing that there would be a moratorium on supportive housing in the neighbourhood after residents complained they were shouldering more than their fair share.
In B.C., supportive housing typically refers to housing that comes with additional services, such as meals and health services. In recent letters to provincial officials, residents say Burnside Gorge has 7 per cent of the City of Victoria’s population but 36 per cent of the city’s supportive housing units, with most of those added in the past six years.
The neighbourhood is home to three hotels being used to house people who were formerly in tent sites. The province has purchased one site and leased the two others for undisclosed terms.
“When the hotels came along – and we are told it is not permanent – it was a trigger point,” said Elizabeth Cull, vice-chair of the Burnside Gorge Community Association.
“We hadn’t resolved the problems with the existing [supportive housing] places and, lo and behold, we suddenly found there was going to be something like 300 residents in hotels, almost all of them in Burnside Gorge,” she added.
Darryl Wilson is the general manager of a Days Inn that sits between two hotels that are now supportive housing sites. He turned down a request from BC Housing to lease his hotel, which has operated throughout the pandemic.
Since nearby hotels began operating as supportive housing, Mr. Wilson said he has seen more litter and disturbances, including loud arguments. Some guests have checked out while others have cancelled bookings over safety concerns, he said.
BC Housing says the facilities include “wrap-around” support, including round-the-clock staffing. Mr. Wilson says that support is not enough.
“All of the problems that were previously outside in the tent encampments, have now been moved inside, with insufficient oversight from BC Housing, the police and other municipal officials,” Mr. Wilson said.
In a May 19 letter to the Burnside Gorge Community Association, BC Housing chief executive officer Shayne Ramsay said the crown corporation is committed to the 2018 agreement. But for now, that agreement is in limbo.
The tensions in Victoria reflect a continuing failure – by society and governments – to tackle factors related to addiction, including marginalization and poverty, said Julian Somers, a researcher at Simon Fraser University.
“If people are being moved in and there isn’t a clear signal that government knows exactly what they are doing, then they [the neighbours] should be nervous,” Dr. Somers said.
“Because they are being asked to shoulder some of this risk – and why? A solution has already been identified and it doesn’t involve moving people around from parks into temporary housing and hoping the neighbours pitch in.”
That solution, he maintains, is to invest in more projects based on Housing First principles, which emphasize housing as the first step in helping people who are living with mental illness or drug addiction and distributing supportive housing throughout a community, not just in low-income neighbourhoods.
Provincial and municipal governments have built Housing First projects but the system has not been implemented on a scale that would allow researchers to track outcomes and make adjustments, Dr. Somers said.
The calls for reform are widespread: In Vancouver, police on Tuesday cleared a tent encampment on Port of Vancouver property near waterfront Crab Park, arresting 46 people in the process. Campers moved to a new site, the third in two months, saying they had nowhere else to go.
In response, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart called on the federal government to help the province and City of Vancouver build more housing.
Ms. Cull, of the Burnside Gorge Community Association in Victoria, says she wants to see residents “double down” on working with BC Housing and service providers that run temporary housing units to improve relations and tackle problems as they come up.
Amid the concerns, there is much empathy and understanding for people who don’t have homes, she said.
“Our position is that we love our neighbourhood; it’s a great neighbourhood and it should be a great neighbourhood for everybody who lives here.”
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