Three Vancouver Island mayors say they have found a successful path forward for lessening homelessness in their communities.
Victoria mayor Lisa Helps, Duncan mayor Michelle Staples and Port Alberni mayor Sharie Minions were the panelists on a discussion around local solutions to homelessness and addiction at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Whistler Tuesday (Sept. 13).
All three municipalities have built, or are in the process of building, small-scale temporary villages of tiny homes to transition people living on the street into permanent housing.
The mayors said homelessness and housing have long been challenges for them, but that the pandemic put them in a position where they had to act. Tent encampments began to crop up as more people were pushed onto the street and, while the municipalities waited on the government to fund shelter spaces, they started thinking of more fulsome solutions.
Each decided on projects they say focus on building community and stability.
In Victoria, the city partnered with a local developer and homelessness coalition to raise $500,000 and construct 30 single-person units out of shipping containers. They were placed in a city-owned parking lot in the North Park neighbourhood, painted by muralists, and fitted with a bed, mini-fridge, desk and wardrobe. The village opened in May 2021.
In Duncan, a 34-unit shipping container village was constructed on an unused lot owned by BC Housing, and similarly outfitted with simple furnishings. It opened in January 2022.
Both built shared washroom and storage facilities, communal areas and gardens.
Most importantly, Helps and Staples said speaking at the UBCM convention, each village has been supported by around-the-clock service providers. This has been key to their success, according to the mayors, with residents offered meals, mental health and addictions support and pathways to low-barrier employment.
Staples said 100 per cent of residents at the Duncan village have reported an improvement in health since moving in, and 79 per cent are engaged in employment programs.
She added that when the project was first proposed, the city received 600 signatures in opposition and plenty of push back from residents, but council chose to push it through. Four months in, Staples said even those who had been in opposition agreed the project seemed to be working.
That hasn’t been true for all neighbours of the village, however. In August, multiple people told the Cowichan Valley Citizen they were concerned about people using drugs in the area and trespassing on properties, including a seniors’ community, although a councillor said he believes those were the actions of unhoused people, not residents of the village.
Regardless of the mixed reactions, Minions said she looked to the Duncan project when she and her council were trying to find a solution to a rundown trailer site in Port Alberni earlier this year.
“We don’t need to recreate the wheel with each of these projects,” she said.
When the property next door to the trailer site went up for sale, the city purchased it. It’s since partnered with the Port Alberni Friendship Center and will be outfitting the site with 30 sleeping pods by November. They’ll be filled by the residents of the trailer site, who will be offered 24/7 supports, while the trailer site will be shut down.
Helps, Staples and Minions said in each of their cases, the government has been hesitant to fund the projects because their small scale and around-the-clock supports are so cost intensive. In the long-term though, the mayors said funding models focused on getting people off the street permanently are money savers.
Victoria’s village is set to close in March 2023, when the residents will be transitioned to a permanent BC Housing site. Duncan voted in August to extended the operation of its village until May 2023.