Transparency and accountability

Tomorrow (Thursday November 12) at its Committee of the Whole meeting ‘victoria’ city council is once again considering multiple items relating to sheltering outside, with no input from people living outside. There is much that could be said about how information in this week’s staff reports and motions contribute to stereotyping, fear, and hatred of people who are unhoused; and the potential negative impacts of much of what is proposed. Council’s discussions this week include a proposal to reinstate their usual ban on daytime sheltering as of March 31, 2021; a report scapegoating unhoused people for crime and economic downturn for businesses downtown; consideration of whether to further restrict the areas where people can shelter outside by imposing a setback from “private property” lines; and affirmation that the City plans to remove a community-built care tent and showers from MEEGAN.

Even the one potentially good piece — acknowledging that there are gaps in access to basic hygiene services and suggesting a process for committing $100,000 to mobile delivery — is embedded in a fuck-you to community for stepping up to address the gaps created by government. And to put that dollar amount in context, what’s proposed is a one-time amount of $100,000 out of $6,500,000 that the municipality recently received from the federal & provincial governments towards COVID aid. In other words, 1.5% of emergency aid to address the survival needs of people living in the most precarious situations, 98.5% to things the City considers more important than poor people’s survival.

One of the things that has been very challenging since the start of the pandemic is that decision-makers in government have refused to engage constructively with people living outside and those doing outreach, advocacy, and support. It didn’t have to go this way: when survival services closed or reduced services due to COVID, government could have recognized the strength in community and worked with people & groups that were on the ground to come up with a tangible plan to make sure everyone stuck living outside could access basic survival needs and to otherwise consider ways to reduce harms. But they didn’t, and they still aren’t.

Now we are in the bizarre situation where the mayor and two councillors are blaming grassroots community members who lovingly set up a care tent and built showers (with money they raised from the community or put in personally), and two grassroots teams that stepped up early on — the Indigenous Harm Reduction Team (IHRT) and Poverty Kills (PK) — for not fully meeting people’s survival needs. According to mayor Lisa Helps and councillors Sarah Potts and Marianne Alto, “Since the beginning of the pandemic the City has worked hard with those sheltering outside as well as with social service agencies to follow public health advice and to meet the needs of people sheltering”, and go on to criticize community for the very threadbare current patchwork of mobile services.

Colonial government operates by stealing resources from Indigenous territories, keeping most of the wealth for settlers, doling out scraps to Indigenous communities, and then attempting to micromanage Indigenous communities’ decisions about money under the guise of “accountability”. This is both patronizing and also quite the double standard, as colonial government has no reciprocal accountability for its economic decisions that so profoundly fuck over Indigenous people.

This motion continues that approach. Saying that the City needs to step in “to facilitate the expedited delivery of emergency social and hygiene services in a coordinated rather than ad hoc and unpermitted way” is a dig against those who are identified in the motion as if we are the ones who have created the current chaos, and without any effort to even talk with us about what we’re doing and how the City could support it. Information on what the CRD has funded is presented in a late motion as if it was some kind of news flash, when most of that funding was allocated months ago.

We wish that instead of going after community-based initiatives the City would focus on addressing the things that they can do to improve the situation, or at least stop making the situation worse. But since they’ve raised the concern of grassroots people fucking things up, let’s talk about that.

Because accountability can’t happen without transparency. And we’re happy to acknowledge the limits of what we are trying to do — which is only a fraction of what is needed.

City actions thus far

The municipal government has done some useful things in COVID times, such as temporarily allowing 24/7 sheltering (instead of forcing people to pack up tents 7 AM every day as is the city’s usual practice), providing $25,000 to each of SOLID and IHRT for emergency in April (100% of IHRT’s money went to survival supplies, IHRT team members worked without pay), providing some funding for fixed-site showers at one agency, and offering a few months of just under $3,000/month to increase bus ticket options for people living outside.

The City has also, since the start of the pandemic:

  • repeatedly changed the rules about sheltering outside, creating uncertainty and high stress, and forcing people to repeatedly relocate (MEEGAN sheltering maps have changed 4 times)
  • increased restrictions on where people can camp, forcing dispersion far from survival services
  • refused to verify how municipal maps showing camping and no-camping zones were produced or why large areas previously deemed acceptable for sheltering are now off-limits
  • restricted the size of tents people can live in
  • filed a legal injunction naming specific campers and using aerial surveillance to non-consensually photograph details of people’s living conditions and locations — exposing unhoused people to harassment
  • refused to let service providers have access to covered work space in parks or to create storage units for campers to access emergency supplies
  • refused repeated requests for access to electrical outlets for campers to charge phones
  • banned fires, heaters, stoves, and fuel in parks (regardless of weather), making it impossible for people to cook food, warm up, or dry off
  • forbidden outreach workers from making calls to Bylaw on campers’ behalf to confirm a tent tagged by Bylaw is still in use and is not abandoned
  • confiscated and/or thrown away unhoused people’s belongings
  • delayed increasing bathroom access in parks until parks re-opened for housed normies to use
  • refused multiple requests to ensure reasonable drinking water access, instead telling unhoused people to use public bathroom sinks and low-flow recreational fountains
  • failed to install handwashing stations proximate to every location where people are sheltering outside or in areas of high public traffic
  • dedicated $600,000 to increased bylaw enforcement and police overtime relating to sheltering in parks
  • promised money for hotel rooms that was never used to shelter people living outside
  • turned off the water to a handwashing station in a park rather than let supporters hook up shower stalls

In their motion mayor Helps and councillors Alto and Potts say “The City supports mutual aid efforts”. We are not sure what they are referring to, as we aren’t aware of anything that the City has done to support the community mutual aid efforts undertaken by people living outside and grassroots groups. We would love to know what the mayor and councillors feel they have supported.

In their motion mayor Helps and councillors Alto and Potts say “Council recognizes that between now and March 31st people living outside need access to services and that these services can’t be adequately provided in an ad hoc way”. While we really hope that everyone living outside is housed ASAP, we do not believe that homelessness will magically be solved on March 31st, 2021. There are around 250 people currently living outside in ‘victoria’ but even before COVID more than 1,500 people in the CRD were without secure long-term shelter. Thousands more are at high risk of homelessness; according to the most recent official census 21,750 households are living in homes considered inadequate in condition, not suitable in size (overcrowded), or unaffordable.

Until the root conditions that lead to homelessness are addressed, there will still continue to be people who are becoming newly homeless. The motion’s suggestion that nobody will be living outside after March 31, 2021 so not needing mobile services is not realistic, particularly as on March 31st most of the seasonal shelters that provide some overnight respite and access to food (and in some cases laundry and/or showers) will close along with the province’s leased rooms at the Travelodge where 90-100 people have been staying since June. Whatever the situation with COVID, which is by no means guaranteed to be over on March 31, mobile survival services will continue to be needed as long as people are stuck with no workable option other than to live outside.

Unhoused people, advocates, and service providers have been saying this for years with no action. Services for people living outside have never been properly resourced and have relied heavily on unhoused people travelling to fixed-site services (which are reduced in COVID times). Since the COVID shutdowns 8 months ago we have been begging government to sit down with people and groups on the ground to figure out a tangible plan and have been met with hostility or silence.

targeting ihrt and pk

It’s well documented that it’s more expensive to keep people being unhoused than to make affordable housing available. We’re in no way surprised that despite the $1.3 million allocated to the CRD as COVID relief Reaching Home money, things are still very shitty for people living outside.

At the same time, we think it’s gross that in a motion that is supposedly about increasing mobile service delivery, the mayor and councillors Alto and Potts single out IHRT and PK for having received $464,952 in federal funding through the Reaching Home COVID-19 program administered by the CRD. None of the other 13 organizations / businesses that received $738,784 from this same program are questioned for their work, and there is no mention of those doing outreach that received funding in other ways (e.g., United Way, Rapid Relief Fund, and other granting programs; or funding from other government, e.g., Island Health).

Instead, in this motion mayor Helps and councillors Alto & Potts position IHRT and PK as responsible to “coordinate and facilitate ongoing access to drinking water, food, hygiene and health supplies, sheltering supplies, clothing, bathrooms, showers, handwashing, laundry, health and harm reduction services, fire safety supplies and plans, or [sic] waste management”. This is nonsense. Many other people are working very hard on the ground, no two groups could do this alone and certainly not two grassroots groups without basic infrastructure that service providers take for granted like paid staff and a space to work in.

If the mayor and councillors had talked with us about any of this we could have let them know that after finding out about the CRD COVID funding PK contacted every poverty service provider in the city to make sure they were aware of the funding and encouraging them to submit proposals. We could have also let them know that PK and IHRT decided to submit a proposal only after finding out that most service providers were not planning to apply for CRD money — which would have left money sitting there unused instead of it going out into community. We are not service providers and have no aspirations to be, we stepped in because service providers weren’t able to. These are all things that happened in April/May, not breaking news.

We haven’t done a perfect job, by any stretch of the imagination. There’s lots to learn from our failures and things that haven’t gone as we’d hoped, and we’re happy to have that discussion. We’re not defensive about our work and we’re happy to talk openly and honestly about it. If anyone working for the City wants to engage on that, they know how to reach us.

The mayor and councillors’ decision to single out IHRT and PK is on them, but the situation is not helped by inaccurate information provided by the CRD. In providing their distorted summary of our proposal that forms an appendix to the mayor and councillor Potts and Alto’s motion, the CRD has misrepresented to the public and to Council what we were funded to do. This has potential impacts on our relationships in community, making it seem that we have broken promises when in reality we were not funded to do most of what is identified by the CRD. We have asked that this misinformation be corrected in the public record — not the first time we’ve had to ask that misinformation be corrected.

However, we also expect that the mayor and councillors exercise common sense in evaluating information put before them. As they are well aware (and as we said in our proposal to the CRD and in our monthly reports to the CRD), there are many things that neither we nor any other group doing outreach can provide — for example we don’t have access to City-controlled infrastructure such as bathrooms, water access for showers / handwashing / laundry, waste management, and access to potable water in sufficient quantities to meet people’s daily needs. The City is the only one that can address these gaps; nobody can magically provide hygiene services outside when the City won’t turn on the water taps it controls.

There are other gaps that we have repeatedly raised with the CRD and the organization that the City mentions as being their interface with campers — the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness (GVCEH). For example, while we implemented a laundry program in conjunction with a local laundromat after asking others (including the GVCEH) to do this and finding no takers, no outreach organization has access to hard infrastructure to directly provide laundry for everyone living outside.

Regarding food, we have repeatedly told to the CRD and GVCEH that we are not a food service organization and cannot coordinate food providers. When the Salvation Army stopped delivering food to parks we laid out a framework for the GVCEH around trying to figure out another way to get mobile food delivery that they said they would move on, but as far as we know it was never acted on. With no action in sight, in October we supported a proposal to the CRD by the Red Cedar Cafe and the Living & Lived Experience of Homelessness Network, who are both doing amazing work on the ground (and have been doing that work through community donations, months before the CRD funding). We can’t do everything, know the limits of our capacity, and genuinely want other groups to get money.

We are also not fire safety experts and have never promised to provide fire safety plans or comprehensive fire safety equipment. What we have said is that as per the UN’s National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada, a harm reduction approach is needed to fire safety. The reality is that if there’s no access to electricity (which campers and we asked the City for, requests that were denied) then people will have to use candles and gas, propane, or other fuels for light and warmth. We have provided battery-powered lanterns and solicited donations of solar chargers to try to give some safer options, but we can’t fix the issues around fire safety. The City could have reduced fire risk by supporting cooking facilities and warming tents in structures that are safer than individual tents, but instead they banned these structures.

To think that PK and IHRT have the power to coordinate service providers is laughable – we are not the boss of service providers and can’t force anyone to work with us (nor would we want to). As grassroots groups we rarely get listened to, we’re rarely invited to meetings where information is shard and decisions made.

We also can’t facilitate ongoing access to anything, as we aren’t funded to do that.

what we were actually funded to do

This is what the CRD actually agreed to provide $464,592 to IHRT and PK to do, over an 8 month period (July to February 2021):

1. Connect with people living outside in parks, on sidewalks, and other unsanctioned locations to find out what they want and need, provide support, and do what we can to address their identified priorities.

2. Recognizing that the funded amount is not enough to meet all supply needs of 250+ people over 8 months, do what we can to buy and distribute camping gear, health/hygiene supplies, toiletries, DIY handwashing stations, communication devices/SIM cards/phone plans and batteries, clothing, bus tickets, safety equipment, water, and snacks/meal replacement. Harm reduction supply distribution includes provision of meth pipes and some cigarettes/tobacco so people can reduce shared use of oral implements, which is high-risk for COVID transmission.

3. Pilot a community-based alcohol support program, where a small amount of alcohol is provided to heavy drinkers (along with vitamins) in the week prior to income assistance to help reduce DTs, seizures, and other serious impacts of alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal support has been needed for a long time and in COVID times is a bigger issue as support services are reduced and, just like housed people, some unhoused people are more reliant on alcohol to cope with these difficult times. This piece of the project is for people living outside and people living in shelters who don’t otherwise have access to alcohol support.

4. Work with a local laundromat to improve laundry access for people living outside.

5. Other activities — supported by a mix of part-time paid time and volunteer time: naloxone and overdose response training at sites where people are sheltering (this was requested by campers); maintenance of a frequently updated directory of changes to survival services in COVID times (used by campers and outreach workers); assistance with referrals and access to information; charging of battery packs to help campers keep communication devices functioning; and communication of campers’ requests to government (when that is requested by campers).

FINANCIAL TRANSPARENCY

The CRD received $1.3 million in COVID Reaching Home money, that all has to be spent by March 31, 2021. The $464,952 IHRT and PK are getting isn’t a lot per person ($232 per month) but is still money that could have been used by homeless people in ways other than what the federal government decided it could be spent on. While public infrastructure (like bathrooms, showers, etc) is a collective responsibility that can’t be funded by individual users, we would be delighted if government would give more money directly to people living outside to decide what they most need and who they trust to do the work. Currently there is no government accountability to people living outside in financial decision making. As part of our proposal and throughout our work, PK and IHRT have asked people living outside about priorities. That’s still not ideal, unhoused people should be directly making the decisions about what gets funded.

Transparency is an important part of community accountability. We have never hidden how we are spending money and have provided details to anyone who asks. Because government has now publicly misportrayed what we are doing, below is information about where the $464,592 from the CRD is going — with rounding to the nearest dollar the total of the numbers below are $1 off the CRD total. Note that while we are always interested in input from people living outside about what is most needed, we are not planning to request more funding when this money runs out on (February 28th, 2021), as the work that we have been doing is not sustainable to do in the long-term without any infrastructure, and we don’t want to become service providers. We continue to hope that ongoing funding will be available and that other groups will apply.

Supplies

  • $218,220 (~$109 per person per month) for camper survival supplies
  • $20,614 (~$27 per person per month, for the 96 people who participate — includes people in shelters) for supplies for the community-based alcohol support program

Laundromat

  • $29,713 for laundromat costs: weekly free DIY laundry hours for people living outside, plus people who live outside can occasionally drop off laundry at other times and have the laundromat charge covered

Mileage

  • $9,299 for people who are using their car to pick up & deliver supplies or do outreach (at government rate of $0.52 per km, for gas and car maintenance)

People’s time

As grassroots teams many people contributing to this work aren’t paid at all, or are working far beyond their paid hours. IHRT and PK have a shared economic justice ethic, so paid hours are prioritized for BIPOCs with low incomes and especially peers — people who are part of the street community. Everyone paid to work on the project makes the same amount, $25/hour; every paid position is no more than part-time so as many people as possible can benefit from the money going to paid time in this project. With every line below the hours are split between multiple people.

  • $20,330 ($2,541 / month) to people living in parks — for doing water & food distribution, naloxone training, consultation around priorities, etc.
  • $10,000 ($1,250 / month) to peers for general project support
  • $64,238 ($8,030 / month) for outreach (mostly peers, some non-peers)
  • $27,239 ($3,405 / month) for driving to pick up and deliver supplies
  • $28,800 ($3,600 / month) for the alcohol support program
  • $24,375 ($3,047 / month) for coordinating all of this
  • $2,100 for Indigenous Elders and drummers for a grieving ceremony

Admin

  • $1,939 ($242 / month) office supplies — printer toner, paper, etc.
  • $4,245 equipment — phones or cheap laptops for peers
  • $1,693 ($212 / month) internet/phone for peers, plus Pro Zoom for multi-person calls
  • $460 ($58 / month) bank charges
  • $1,688 AVI admin charge for being the agency of record and initially handling some of the billing (laundromat, drinking water, etc)

Non-peers are paying out of pocket for our phone, internet, etc. because that’s part of economic justice, that we redistribute resources more fairly. Because we have no work space (despite asking other organizations, the City, and the CRD) everyone is working from home, with no reimbursement of any part of rent.

If there are any questions about any of this, please feel free to contact us.

What we hope the city will do

We hope the City will stop going after grassroots people and groups that are doing things that are needed. We hope the City will focus on what it can usefully do.

Municipal governments, while not wholly responsible for homelessness, have through control of park infrastructure the power to significantly worsen or improve quality of life for people who are stuck living outside in city parks. As we’ve said many times to Council and City staff in letters, presentations, and reports, we hope that the City will stop swinging between inaction and frantic flailing and instead dedicate time and energy to working with people living outside and groups on the ground in a collaborative, respectful, and effective way.

On April 30, 2020 the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing published a National Protocol for Homeless Encampments in Canada. This document identifies municipalities’ obligations, under international human rights law, regarding treatment of people sheltering outside in tent cities and sets out a practical and actionable framework municipal governments can use to take positive action. We hope that Council will commit to aligning their response to homeless encampments with this protocol and use it as a framework for action planning with people living outside, advocates, and service providers.

We hope that to better understand the impact of their decisions thus far, every City councillor and staff member involved in decision-making regarding sheltering in parks will spend one week living in a tent in a City park, making sure to uphold full compliance with the City’s current bylaws. (If you agree, check out this petition.)

As an emergency measure to stop further harm, we hope that Council will direct the Bylaw Division to immediately suspend enforcement of all the provisions of the parks bylaw pertaining to people sheltering in parks, and go through a process to revise the City’s approach — to align with decolonization, Indigenous ways of being, and international protocols (including UNDRIP as well as the UN’s proposed encampment protocol mentioned above). Obsessing about containing, controlling, and surveilling people living outside is a misalignment of resources and is dehumanizing. It also amps up housed people’s hysteria about unhoused people as inherently dangerous and in need of constant supervision.

We hope that the City will prioritize COVID relief funding and other emergency money to ensure that every person living in the municipality has access to survival basics: drinking water, a way to stay warm and dry, health and hygiene infrastructure, etc.

We hope that instead of going back to a dysfunctional and cruel system of rousting people from parks at 7 AM every morning (which under the current parks bylaw will happen once the COVID health emergency is over) the City will acknowledge that daily displacement is not a solution to homelessness, permanently repeal parks bylaw provisions that prohibit daytime sheltering, and work with people living outside to ensure that everyone living outside has 24/7 access to survival basics.

We hope that motions brought forward will be part of a methodical plan to improve things, not scattershot hasty reactions ungrounded in any conversation with the people who will be most impacted.

All of this is possible, if the will is there.

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