On September 16, the City of Victoria will host a “Sheltering Solutions” workshop for the general public to help identify temporary solutions to homelessness. We applaud the City for including accessibility measures to encourage participation from people with lived experience of homelessness (i.e., offering food, stipends for participation and childcare). However, we feel there is a larger question that needs to be asked: how should decisions about responding to homelessness be made and who should be making decisions about services for those who are homeless?
The strategy of consulting the general public on issues of temporary shelter results in the interests of the housed overshadowing the interests of people who are homeless and these venues provide unnecessary opportunities for a vocal minority to display and perpetuate anti-poor hate. This is not okay with us and it should not be okay for residents of Victoria.
The “Sheltering Solutions” workshop is an outcome of a public event held at Topaz Park on July 30 after the park was proposed as a possible location for a tent city. The Times Colonist article following the event reported a “furious crowd” of which most of the “300 people gathered rejected the idea of a tent city” (Harnett, July 30 2015). People with experience of homelessness who attended the event reported widespread anti-homeless and anti-poor sentiments, to the extent of being ‘booed’ when they spoke. One look at the online comments to the Times Colonist article provides a glimpse into the stigma, myths, misunderstanding and fear of people who are homeless. From this event and media coverage following, people who are homeless got the message, loud and clear, that they are not considered residents of Victoria.
At Topaz Park, the primary interests expressed were the interests of the housed and not the homeless. Concerns about property value and crime clouded issues of shelter and safety for people who are homeless. Rather than addressing the poor-bashing at the Topaz incident, the event was described by City officials as “the best of democracy” and we saw the creation of a Council Member Motion (July 31 2015) to “consult the public” before Council even considers a “designated tenting area or tent city in any park.” By creating this motion, a message was sent: not only is anti-poor hate okay in our city, but its expression by a vocal minority can and will impact action on sheltering solutions.
Sheltering solutions need to privilege the interests, needs and safety of homeless people themselves. People who are currently homeless or with former experiences of homelessness, people who deliver housing and social services, and elected officials with spending authority need to be involved to find solutions that will meet the needs of Victoria’s residents experiencing homelessness, not the general public. In addition to consultation, research on best practices for sheltering must be collected and applied to the local context to generate evidence-based solutions. This can be done through special committees and working groups, and by supporting initiatives that are happening in our community to address homelessness.
Solutions are possible. Victoria is full of people who want to see appropriate, safe and dignified shelter options for residents experiencing homelessness. However, the attempts to consult the broader public on issues of temporary shelter are unnecessary, inefficient and dangerous. Events like this repeatedly provide platforms for anti-homeless and anti-poor sentiments, overwhelming public discourse on poverty and inequality and squeezing out reasonable discussion. This is not meaningful consultation of those with expertise on the issues.
Homeless people are not the problem. We need to shift the gaze away from the problem of homeless people to the problem of homeless hysteria and anti-poor hate and find solutions that meet the needs of all Victoria’s residents. The safety, services, dignity and rights of people who are homeless must not be held hostage by those who are housed and a vocal minority that are hostile to their needs.
Ashley Mollison and Flora Pagan have several years experience working with people living in homelessness and organizing with their communities on unceded traditional Coast Salish territories.