Reality check: situation on the ground

Two days ago the provincial government announced their plans to close down tent cities at Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue here, and Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside, by May 9. The headline of the accompanying BC Housing release is “Province secures safe shelter, supports for people living in major encampments”. People have been told that effort will be made to keep street families together and they would have 24/7 wraparound support and services, that this is being done in a way that will involve people being treated respectfully.

Yesterday BC Housing participated in a phone meeting initiated by the municipality, to answer questions and provide information about how this process will work. Organizations that have been on the ground since the start of the COVID crisis and City reps were there; Island Health, VicPD representatives were invited but either did not attend or were a silent presence.

resourcing decampment, not survival needs

It’s been six weeks since the COVID-related mass closures/reduction of street survival services. In that time none of the three levels of government (city, regional health authority, province) were able to figure out basics like COVID-prevention measures for the street community, let alone making sure everyone had access to adequate drinking water, food, bathrooms, showers, laundry.

But they sure know how to mobilize resources to break up tent cities. Using the same team and process as at Super InTent City, fencing and site marking is already underway with 3,000 more feet of fencing coming in the next couple days. This fencing is intended to prevent “recamping”, i.e., prevent people who have left the site from coming back to the site, and stop people sheltering at other parks from coming on-site. Totes are being delivered to sites, a moving company has been contracted, and cleanup crews have been deployed. It’s a model of efficiency.

At the existing motel sites, the situation is very different. Conditions vary across sites but at some locations residents don’t even have adequate food or cleaning services. Outreach workers supporting people to move in found that there’d been no assessment of people’s needs for clean clothes, basic hygiene & wellness supplies, ways to stay in touch with loved ones/service providers, or anything else they would need. There are no overdose prevention or response services, and on-site support is very limited. Motel staff have not been provided with any education or training on how to work respectfully with the street community.

Because the motel situation is so inadequate, already many people who were earlier moved in haven’t been able to stay. Bringing more people inside without basics lined up will make the situation worse for everyone in the motels. There is particular concern about the high risk of death from drug overdose.

no inFORMATION, no plan

At the call outreach workers asked very basic questions:

  • How many spaces are actually available at this point?
  • What are people’s sheltering options?
  • How do people apply for the motel spaces?
  • How would people’s needs be assessed?
  • What services are being lined up for people at motels?
  • Which agencies are managing the motels?
  • What happens to people who are left outside?

BC Housing could not answer any of these questions.

no needs assessment

The Victoria Decampment Plan on the BC Housing website says that “prior to moving, each individual will be assessed by outreach workers and Island Health to match them with the site that best meets their social and health needs, as well as their preference”.

After the call one of the outreach organizations emailed BC Housing again asking for clarification on how people apply for the motel spaces. BC Housing replied asking this organization’s outreach workers (some who have been working 7 days a week, and some working unpaid) to help camp residents fill out BC Housing’s intake form.

This is what BC Housing considers “comprehensive assessment” to determine what people need when they move into a motel:

Where did you come from today?  
Where did you spend the majority of your time
since March 15th, 2020 (Topaz, Pandora, including
resources, neighbourhoods)  
Do you have any underlying medical conditions you
would like to share with us?  
Physical health _______________________  
Mental health ________________________  
Substance use needs __________________________  
Please describe: __________________________________________________  

The provincial government said they would keep self-identified families together and to give people options about where they’re located, but they aren’t asking anything that would allow them to actually do that. They’re also not giving people any information about what types of shelter/motel options there are, so people can’t make informed choices about what might best fit their needs. There is no process to think about safety needs. There is no relationship building by BC Housing workers to be able to have sensitive conversations about people’s situation and risk for violence.

confirming everyone else is left behind

In a Victoria decampment FAQ emailed 2 days ago to outreach organizations, BC Housing said that someone not living in tent cities at Topaz or Pandora could still be considered, through applications to the provincial Supportive Housing Registry.

This morning the story changed again, with an email from BC Housing saying “The current sheltering strategy only applies to people at Topaz and Pandora”. So the people sheltering in every other park, and people in mats-on-the-floor shelters and other unsafe situations, aren’t even being considered.

no coordination

At the phone meeting BC Housing kept saying that collaboration is essential. The reality is that while there are endless meetings, there is no collaboration.

The different levels of government aren’t even collaborating with each other to ensure that everyone’s survival needs are being met. BC Housing says it’s only their job to secure shelter/housing spaces, and points fingers at Island Health to set up on-site services. The municipality says it’s done everything it can and won’t confirm what will happen to people left sheltering outside, whether they will be subjected to daily displacement under the Parks Bylaw, or able to access the meagre city-funded services that community had to push to get set up at Topaz and Pandora.

worker burnout

While the people most impacted are those living outside, frontline workers (including peer workers who are part of the street community, and people with past experience) are being treated terribly. Frontline workers on the call shared stories of having to work 7 days a week for weeks on end because of short staffing due to people needing to self-isolate for 14 days if they have the sniffles, people having to look after kids or other loved ones, and people being unwell from the trauma and stress of doing constant overdose response and other life-or-death situations.

There are longstanding funding inequities exacerbated by the current crisis. Some organizations are not getting full funding for their outreach work so peer workers are being underpaid or not paid at all. Some organizations are doing better with staff support than others, but as has been the case all along in the overdose crisis, peer workers are largely being left by the system to cope with massive stress and trauma.

What can be done?

The news in this post is hard to hear. The situation is bad, the stakes are high, and the harms are real. But there are also a lot of positive things that people can do.

This morning we had a strategy session and are moving forward with ways for people to sustainably contribute in ways that are caring and relational rather than oriented to burnout. We know from our experiences around HIV/AIDS, the ongoing overdose crisis, and previous tent cities that it is NOT hopeless, that there are things that everyday people can do from a principled place of solidarity, care, and respect. If you are interested please read about how you can get involved.

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