According the latest Greater Victoria Point-in-Time homeless count, the capital region had 1,523 individuals considered full time homeless in July of 2020. Two years later, this number has almost undoubtedly grown. This represents a 10% increase from the 1,387 capital region homeless reported in the 2016 Point-In-Time survey. With an estimated population of 397,237, the homeless demographic comprises 0.4% of the capital region’s residents. However, the majority of the homeless are concentrated in the municipality of Victoria which has a base population of about 91,000. Meaning the impact of this demographic is more acutely felt than the statistics show. In comparison, the Metro Vancouver area has a population of 2,632,000 and 3,634 people without homes. This is 0.14% of the Metro Van population, which is 2.8 times less severe per capita than Greater Victoria’s homeless population. The following map is based on Canada-wide statistics and shows the percentage of large Canadian cities’ population that are homeless.
WHY VICTORIA AS A DESTINATION FOR THE HOMELESS?
Victoria’s climate is amongst the mildest in Canada which is attractive to those who do not have shelter. This will act as a perpetual draw for Canada’s homeless. Shelter workers and police officers have testified that a large percentage of this demographic are not from the island and come from as far east as the maritime provinces. In fall and winter, Vancouver has monthly rainfall that are up to 53% greater than Victoria’s, adding incentive to migrate to the island city. Provincially funded groups such as Social Planning and Research Council of B.C. (SPARC BC) provide free cell phones (with data plans) for the homeless and local organizations (some private, some heavily funded by CRD and BC Province) provide camping equipment to this demographic. In 2021, the province of British Columbia began providing $22.6 million dollars over a 3 year span to various health authorities to provide clean hydromorphone pills and fentanyl patches to those designated as “drug addicted.” A large percentage of the homeless population fall in this category and also have access to free opioid agonists such as methadone through local pharmacies. These perks are not under the purview of a city council or mayor as they involve federal and provincial as well as private funding and are distributed by a wide array of public and private organizations. Therefore this aspect of homeless life is not unique to Victoria nor can it be stopped by the council or mayor. But it is not a reason for Victoria’s disproportionate attraction of the homeless.
Apart from our weather, our historically lenient Victoria City council and mayor have been hesitant to designate parks and public green spaces as “no sheltering” zones. This has allowed the homeless demographic to establish encampments throughout the city with little to no inconvenience from by-law and law enforcement officers. Word has gotten out and Victoria is now a preferred destination for this demographic.
Temperate climate and encampment-friendly local government seem to be the main drivers of the larger-than-average and ever growing homeless population in the municipality of Victoria.
PROPOSED STRAGEGIES TO DEAL WITH HOMELESS DEMOGRAPHIC
As the homeless population grows, so does the crime rate within the city as well as the negative interactions between a) the homeless and police, b) homeless and the public and c) between the homeless and the homeless. As of 2020, the municipality of Victoria had the highest crime severity index (CSI) in the province. With a likely increase in total population as well as an increase in the homeless population, the CSI will likely increase over the next 4 year term of the incoming city council and mayor.
The following proposed strategy change for the incoming city councillors and mayoral office could be expressed in three phases. Phase one will be an action item that is in the power of the council and mayor in partnership with bylaw officers and the Victoria Police Department.
PHASE ONE – CITY WIDE NO SHELTERING ENFORCEMENT
All of Victoria’s “tent city” encampments have eventually fallen out of favor with both the general public and the city council. The Beacon Hill Park tent city introduced the James Bay and Fairfield neighbourhoods to consistent trespassing, bike thefts and vehicle break-ins. Park enthusiasts had to watch out for used needles and those bringing children were met with a warning by the city to “sweep for needles” before letting their children play in the historic park.
Eventually a man burned to death in his van and a woman was stabbed to death next to the park. And as though this was not enough, the final straw came when bystanders witnesses an attempted kidnapping and severe beating of a 15 year old as well as the assault of two police officers. As a result of this carnage, the city declared Beacon Hill Park a “no shelter” zone and allowed by-law officers and police to evict the tent city residents.
Currently, even our encampment-friendly council and mayor have been on a trend to designate larger and larger numbers of parks as “no sheltering” zones that are enforced by the police and bylaw officers. Although seen as compassionate, tent cities and unregulated indoor dwellings have not helped the distress within the homeless demographic. Phase one of the proposed strategy would increase the scope of the no sheltering designation to every green space, park and public area in the municipality of Victoria, including storefronts, sidewalks, etc. Sometimes referred to as the “move along” policy, this will obviously increase the interaction between non-compliant members of the homeless population and police officers. Therefore council and the mayor should pre-suppose that the Victoria Police Department will receive a substantial increase in their operating budget to expand their homeless engagement task force. The specifics of which will have to be researched and negotiated between the city and the police.
According to the 2020 Point-in-Time report on Victoria’s homeless, roughly one third of them (~500) are without shelter and therefore use public encampments as their residence. With over 3 dozen buildings in the CRD area purchased by the provincial government to house this demographic, there is still not enough shelters from the current homeless population.
The inevitable question therefore becomes “where do we put the homeless that have nowhere to go?” And this is a fair question. But another question can be directed in response: “at what point do we declare that Victoria can no longer accept anymore homeless?”
We cannot entertain a never-ending growth in this demographic. Eventually there will be no more hotels or other infrastructure to purchase and we will find ourselves at a final tension point with the homeless demographic. In other words, sooner or later the city’s strategy will have to be “enough is enough.” With more and more homeless filtering into medium and low density residential areas as we create more “no sheltering” zones in some parts of the city — while tolerating sheltering in others — we are quickly reaching a point in which this demographic will be present in all low density neighbourhoods in the municipality. Safety issues will continue to rise in school zones, residential areas in the form of assaults, abandoned needles and break-ins. I and my like-minded colleagues vying for positions on the council believe we have already reached the “enough is enough” level of homeless in Victoria.
As a result we have to enforce a city-wide “no sheltering” policy and break the cycle of only acquiescing to the homeless demographic even though it does nothing to lower their misery index and it harms the community at large. By keeping them from settling in green spaces, parks, public spaces and neighbourhoods, we will eventually create a compliance trend that will direct them towards existing shelters and services. And for those who have no shelter, they will become more likely to entertain migrating to other townships, accepting funds to be reconnected to family or to finally comply with complex care facility rules once the province builds these on the lower island. But the option of roaming the streets and parks, remaining in drug addiction, crime and violence will finally be off the table. If Victoria is at full capacity for this demographic, than it is full. Continually purchasing more and more infrastructure cannot be our only long term strategy.
The next phase of the strategy is aimed at the inevitable difficult transition that will follow the “move along” policy of phase one.
PHASE TWO – HOLDING THE LINE & THE TRANSITION PERIOD
Immediately upon implementing phase one of the strategy, the city will enter a transition period in which the homeless population will become a fluid, ever-moving system. It will no longer be stagnant and congregating in parks, storefronts and public spaces. The static state may have appeared easy and compassionate, but it only increased the misery index for the homeless demographic and drives crime to unprecedented and province-leading levels. No one wins in the current system. No one. Instead of a laissez-faire attitude that draws homeless from across the province and Canada to come here, the word will get out that things are no longer purely convenient for this demographic and long term encampments are no longer tolerated. No more static state for the homeless in the city. A fluid one will be imposed by the council and police. Without this demographic entering a fluid state there will be no change to the burden. This will not be an easy stage as it will increase the friction between the police and the homeless demographic.
Please remind yourself that if we cannot tackle the problem of public encampments now — with the roughly 500 homeless that have no set place to go – we will never solve this crisis. The convenience experienced thus far by the Victoria homeless is bringing in record numbers of others and by the end of 2026, the 500 unsheltered will have grown even more and be much harder to accommodate. We either have to enter the difficult transition now or simply admit we will tolerate any and all growth of this demographic which will turn the once beautiful and thriving downtown core of our city into a ghost town. And imagine the misery index of the homeless community when it has grown so large that no help is available to them. What appears as compassion has led to misery for these unfortunate residents.
Just as phase 1 will occur simultaneously with phase 2, the final phase will begin at the same time as both 1 and 2. Therefore, all stages of the protocol will be happening synchronistically.
“We either have to enter the difficult transition now or simply admit we will tolerate any and all growth of this demographic which will turn the once beautiful and thriving downtown core of our city into a ghost town.”
PHASE THREE – CARE FACILITIES NOT SHELTERS
Of the 30 plus shelters, supportive housings, low income and fixed rentals and CRD housing in the Capital Region District, none of them are evolved complex care facilities for the homeless and their specialized needs. The provincial government of B.C. owns and manages the majority of these shelters in concert with some private organizations. The council will need a compliant province — and perhaps federal government — in order to create effective alternatives to the current approach.
Essentially our shelters that focus on the most difficult in our homeless demographic (including the downtown hotels) serve as tent cities with rooves at worse, and unspecialized free housing at best. Specialized mental health services are not at adequate levels and addiction services are lacking. There is no hard, rule based protocol within these hotels for the more difficult members of the homeless community. Therefore the criminal elements within this demographic have used them for drug and sex trafficking while others sink deeper into addiction and lack of self-care which have created fire hazards and outright fires. All of this places undue burden on the percentage of the homeless sincerely battling addiction and seeking a way out of the lifestyle. It also places the general public at risk. Transforming the shelter-only protocol to a complex care, rule-based and enforced facility will provide tremendous benefit to these men and women.
Sobriety-only programs will not be as effective if we do not thread employment opportunity into these facilities. A rehabilitation process fused with skill upgrades and upwards income mobility will be far more successful than the current model. Education grants from provincial government could be infused into the process. Furthermore, travel funds should be made available for the members of this demographic seeking to be reunited with relatives living off island.
This blue print would be an effective departure from the do-nothing approach that has grown the homeless demographic’s size, misery index and criminal impact on each other and the law abiding business owners and residents of Victoria, B.C. We cannot let this go unchallenged anymore. The 3 phases outlined above would have an immediate impact on the state of our city and would usher in a period in which homeless Victorians have a chance to be better taken care of and have an improved chance of long lasting rehabilitation.
Often seen as compassionate, the street environment, the outdoor encampments and even the indoor shelter facilities are often places where the homeless encounter violence and even death. Even as far back as 2014 a report on the B.C. Coroner’s office publication noted that Victoria has the province’s highest mortality rate for homeless. Real compassion means a more humane and safe environment for this unfortunate demographic as well as a solution that takes into consideration the residents and businesses that also suffer from this crisis.
Please consider me and my www.vivavictoria.ca teammates this election,
Emmanuel V. Parenteau
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