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More than 500 people attended a meeting on temporary housing options, including 366 homeless people who were each paid $20. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
More than 500 people attended a meeting on temporary housing options, including 366 homeless people who were each paid $20. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Homeless people given $20 to attend meeting on housing in Victoria Add to ...

A public meeting on temporary housing options that saw hundreds of homeless people receive $20 each for their thoughts has raised some eyebrows, but Victoria’s mayor says the unconventional approach has helped build bridges and generate new ideas.

More than 500 people attended last week’s meeting, including 366 homeless people who were each paid $20. The $7,320 total was deducted from a $350,000 council budget set aside to explore the issue of homelessness.

At tables of 10 that filled Victoria’s Crystal Garden conference centre, members of the public discussed their ideas and recorded them on worksheets with basic questions: What is your solution, and why? What are the next five steps in implementing it? Who should the city partner with?

The two most-discussed ideas involved converting vacant buildings and providing additional funding to existing shelters to create more beds, Mayor Lisa Helps said.

But there were unexpected solutions.

“One thing that came up that I think needs to be pressed into is that the homeless people who were there started to list all the skills that they had,” Ms. Helps said in an interview on Sunday. She recalled one man saying he had worked as a carpenter and could help fix up a church basement.

“That night, I met carpenters, stonemasons,” Ms. Helps said. “One of our staff met an engineer who had drawn up some drawings for temporary shelters that were easy to construct.”

From that, the idea to create an inventory of skills among the homeless population was born.

The mayor said the meeting’s format also helped build trust and understanding between the city and its homeless population. She called the $20 payments – an idea raised by the inner-city community centre Our Place – a modest expenditure.

“Those folks that came out, they’re the least expensive consultants we’ve ever hired and they had already done the research in advance,” she said.

Councillor Ben Isitt noted that providing small payments is considered a best practice when working with marginalized populations. “I support the payment of honoraria to facilitate the participation of people who lack financial resources and who would otherwise be excluded from civic engagement processes,” he said in an e-mail.

But Councillor Geoff Young, who reviewed some of the completed worksheets, said he doesn’t think it was a good use of city funds. “I don’t think we needed 360-odd people to represent the views of the homeless community,” he said, adding that many people repeated ideas that staff have heard many times before, such as easing restrictions on camping.

Mr. Young also questioned the merit of housing solutions proposed by the homeless in general. “I agree that you want to hear from the clients of our services – when we’re providing homeless shelters, or whatever it is – because we don’t want to be providing services that are unused,” he said.

“At the same time, clearly if the people we’re targeting had the ability to organize housing, organize shelter, they presumably would do so for themselves. There’s a limit on what you can expect to learn from them.”

However, Mr. Young acknowledged the need to provide temporary housing options if the city wants to curb camping in public parks. The B.C. Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that it is unconstitutional to deny overnight sleeping in parks if homeless shelter beds are not available.

An estimated 130 people sleep in Victoria parks every night. In July, hundreds of people attended a public meeting at the city’s Topaz Park to oppose the idea of designating it a temporary “tent city” for the homeless.

City staff have collected material from last week’s public meeting and are expected to report back to council on Oct. 22.

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