Victoria city council has approved the use of a $300,000 COVID-19 response fund to continue housing the city’s homeless in hotel and motel rooms.
The motion, which passed six to one in a committee of the whole meeting on Thursday, directs city staff to book hotel and motel rooms in the capital region for people currently sheltering in the City of Victoria.
In addition to housing, the motion calls for the provision of appropriate social care and health care services, as well as other supports and wraparound services. Staff were also directed to use the money for some 24-hour washrooms and hand-washing facilities, as well as showering facilities at the Our Place community centre.
The money is to be drawn from unspent funds from previously approved $300,000 COVID-19 response funding.
Councillor Ben Isitt, who said he brought the motion forward with the support of other councillors, noted he was encouraged by the progress made lately in housing the homeless.
“I think there is a real opportunity with the disruption of our economic system and our society to eliminate at least visible street level homelessness in the community, if we can muster sufficient political will and sufficiently robust partnerships with other levels of government and other organizations,” said Isitt.
Public safety order
Given the COVID-19 pandemic, B.C. enacted a public safety order in April requiring tent city residents in Vancouver and Victoria to move into hotels and motels until more permanent housing is made available.
More than 300 people have been moved into temporary housing since that order, but according to Isitt, there is still an unmet need of approximately 200 units.
In an effort to stretch funds, the motion looks to house people in cities and towns throughout the Capital Regional District.
“I believe a lot of the affordable motels and hotels have already been booked, and so in terms of stretching the remainder of the $300,000, looking throughout the region seems to make sense,” said Isitt.
The lone dissenting vote came from Councillor Geoff Young, who argued that accommodation would be difficult to procure, the added social and health related supports would be too costly, and the promise to house the homeless would send a message to homeless outside the region that the City of Victoria would house them.
“We’re sending the wrong messages out. I think to the extent we want to spend money it should be on safe, but basic and minimal sheltering for people to keep them from the weather and predators, strongly supervised to try and minimize impact on surrounding neighbourhoods,” said Young.
“Sending out the message: ‘Come to Victoria, get a free hotel room’ is working against everything we want to achieve.”
In response, Councillor Sarah Potts asserted that the city’s bylaw services have indicated several times they are not seeing a massive influx of people.
Reimbursement of funds
This first part of the motion, which passed unanimously, requested that Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps reiterate the city’s request that the B.C. government “mobilize sufficient resources to offer housing with appropriate social care and health care to all unhoused people in the province of British Columbia.”
Councillor Marianne Alto stated her interest in the reimbursement for the costs of these and previous expenditures related to COVID-19 housing, leading to an amendment that the city seeks to recover these funds.
“While we may have been forced into taking this action because there was urgency that can’t be met for whatever reasons by the province, that we expect them to pay for this because it is indeed their own responsibility,” said Alto.
City staff indicated that the city could expect the province to reimburse money spent on hotels and other services.