It's also a context setter for Thursday's working group meeting of the Sooke Homelessness Coalition (SHC), which is now collaborating with the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness in the development of a strategic plan to address Sooke region homelessness -- visible and especially invisible with the growing number of couch surfers and those camping of necessity in vehicles (i.e., hardcore "van life," the kind that is causing municipalities like Squamish and Vancouver to rethink their bylaws.) The SHC's goal is to gather "local housing, health and social service providers, businesses, people with lived or living experiences of homelessness and concerned citizens" in a collaborative mission "to develop and drive solutions to end homelessness."
Given all her other responsibilities, Mayor Tait has stepped back from her founding role with the SHC and asked me to co-chair it alongside Sooke Shelter Society president Melanie Cunningham. Along with many others, I've attended a number of past meetings of it and the preliminary groups leading to its formation, including the Mayor's inaugural Homelessness Forum in early September, 2018 at which the Sooke Region Communities Health Network was asked to address this multi-faceted issue.
A few months earlier, the District's Affordable Housing Committee (click to explore the wealth of related links Britt Santowski compiled) had convened for the first time with a mandate to update the District's 2007 Affordable and Social Housing Policy. One of its outcomes was the 2019 Housing Needs Report, which looked at four key areas: "Limited availability of housing that is affordable to residents of the community; concerns related to housing adequacy, suitability and accessibility; limited supply of low-income housing in the community; and limited housing diversity across the housing continuum."
I'm also a co-founder of the Sooke Multi-Belief Initiative, a Transition Sooke working group that emerged from the Mayor's May, 2016 Sooke Health Summit. Along with reps from a dozen local groups, I was among the 50 locals who brainstormed and developed ideas for the SMBI's Compassionate Action Plan. One of its five priorities is homelessness. [From the report: "Estimates of the number of homeless people in Sooke range from about 35 to more than 100. They are a nearly invisible part of our community. They spend much of each day trying to satisfy basic needs for food, safe shelter and hygiene. Social contact with the larger community is often avoided by these individuals, just as more fortunate residents tend to avoid contact with them. Many homeless people contend with mental illnesses aggravated by addictions to alcohol and street drugs. These challenges become more difficult during our winter months, especially during periods of extreme weather. Some working poor are also homeless due to the lack of affordable housing in Sooke. They may inhabit vehicles and moored boats."]
All this said, I was raised middle class and have blessedly no experience with the lower rungs of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. But I am aware of the reasons we as a society need to be empathetic and proactive. Compassion = Empathy In Action, definitely a Sooke trademark given the dedicated work of our non-profit organizations, churches, volunteers and the unofficial, in the moment, generosity typified by the caring folks on the Sooke Embrace Facebook page. In 2019, Sooke became the 103rd community worldwide to be officially recognized as a Compassionate City by Charter of Compassion International.
The Sooke Homelessness Coalition's strength lies in the involvement of individuals and organizations who, unlike me, have direct frontline experience. They include Melanie and her Sooke Shelter Society colleague Sherry Thompson, Sooke Region Communities Health Network (SRCHN) director Mary Dunn, Hope Centre coordinator Carla Simich and the Greater Victoria Coalition's Kelly Roth and Janine Theobald. Coalition meetings also typically include representatives from the District of Sooke, the T'Sou-ke Nation, the Sooke RCMP, BC Housing, Our Place Society, the BC Ministry of Social Services & Poverty Reduction, and AVI Harm Reduction Services.
Plans are now underway for a community strategic planning sessions in the fall. A starting point are the recommendations beginning on pg. 66 of this spring's Beyond the Paradise: Homelessness in the Sooke Region report, a must-read prepared for SRCHN by Gemma Martin. All resonate with the "five key community-based outcome areas" in the Greater Victoria Homeless Coalition's Community Plan to End Homelessness in the Capital Region (2019).
1. "Housing First With Wrap-Around Support" - roof over head for the chronically homeless + on-site mental health and addiction services as championed elsewhere, including the City of Victoria's Breaking The Cycle of Mental Illness, Addictions and Homelessness report, related housing-first case studies in the region and the Medicine Hat, Alta. Plan to End Homelessness (2009; year nine progress report here).
2. Transitional Housing - now available locally following many years of lobbying with BC Housing's purchase of the Hope Centre this February with its 33 shelter-rate rental rooms and community kitchen. This followed a surge in attention to and care for the homeless during COVID (i.e., the temporary shelters at SEAPARC, Ed Mcgregor Park and the former Mulligans/Speed Source building at John Phillips Memorial Park.)
3. Hub Service Model: One-stop access for vulnerable populations to information about available services, including healthcare, housing support, washing facilities, food, employment, training opportunities. The ground floor of the Hope Centre (former St. Vincent de Paul store) is slated to become this hub with full-time staff, six shelter beds for temporary visitors, programming space and a commercial kitchen/dining space where upstairs residents will have communal meals.
4. "Meaningful Alliances with First Nations in the Sooke Region"
5. Education & Communication: Outreach to the community to explain the problem and how its being addressed, "using in part the voices of people with lived experience." (Misunderstanding abounds, of course. A Winnipeg Free Press article, for instance, quotes Carolann Barr, executive director at Toronto-based non-profit Raising the Roof, as saying that "people who are homeless are more often victims than criminals. The general public might think that people who face homelessness are actually perpetrators of crime, but most research and most statistics available indicate that people who are homeless are at greater risk of violence and attack, obviously because they don’t have a safe place to go home to.'")
6. Access to Affordable Housing - Martin quotes one of her lived-experience survey subjects as saying "it's getting to the point (in Sooke) that it's feeling like a lottery to get a viewing even at an apartment, let alone being selected." Rent Smart service ... BC Non-Profit Housing Association
7. "Investment in Localized Specialized Services" -
The Hope Centre can position itself as transitional housing given the incoming BC Housing complexes slated for the east side of the town centre (Drennan/Sooke Rd. and Charters/Throup). Under the Building BC program, affordable housing projects offer a mix of options that address various low income thresholds. In Sooke's case, 244 units of affordable housing will be available — 194 units at near-market or affordable rental rates and 49 at the provincial shelter (aka income assistance) rate of $385 per month per person.
In recent years, the Greater Victoria Point In Time count has identified approximately 50 unhoused individuals in Sooke (while not capturing statistics on the tide of couch surfers.)
Food Security & Poverty Reduction
Related is the final version of the Sooke Region Food Security Report, presented to council last night by its author, SRCHN's Christine Bossi, who worked in association with farmer and Otter Point food security expert Martin Bissig, a board member with Sooke Region Food CHI.
The pair have documented the issue of food security and poverty reduction in considerable detail. Like Martin, they've identified the realities and gaps in an earnest but overwhelmed system that strives, increasingly so in recent years, as best it can to leave nobody behind.
The report also documents the range of valiant non-profits doing such essential work locally. And, in its concluding pages, it revives, renews and advances substantial recommendations to guide compassionate community planning ~ namely the need for a Sooke Food Policy Council to spark action; and a local Food Hub with commercial kitchen where "independent entrepreneurs, agricultural, artisanal and others" can prepare all manner of locally sourced food for retail sale.
On these two points, there's already some promising developments:
i) The District recently agreed to host a grant application that would fund a regional Food Policy Council under the auspices of the Capital Region Food and Agricultural Initiatives Roundtable.
ii) The BC Ministry of Agriculture is committed to creating food hubs across the province where producers can book commercial kitchens to prepare value-added delights and also learn about how to market and sell them profitably. Victoria, the Cowichan Valley, Port Alberni and Bowser south of Courtenay are already in service, and there's no question one belongs on the west shore, suggests Ms. Bossi. (It helps that she is also the chair of the Sooke Community Economic Development Committee, which is dedicated to aligning social, economic and environmental factors in the recommendations it brings to council. (We, too, will make our decisions by weighing the co-benefits identified by Simon Fraser University's ACT team and its Low Carbon Resilience framework.)
A few not-so-fun facts from the report that capture the scale of the challenge:
* "Around 15% of the households in Sooke and the Sooke Region in general are of low-income, many of which consist of children and seniors. The necessary household income to manage with the cost of living in a BC community of a population under 30,000 is $42,408.00."
* "The lack of availability to food, including fresh produce, was not seen as an issue, but firstly the lack of disposable income and secondly transportation. Once the main bills were paid, of which housing was the main expense, food was the variable in a low-income household"
* "The groups who are most vulnerable to food insecurity are: female-headed single families, indigenous peoples, marginally housed and homeless, and new immigrants.
* "12.4 % of British Columbians were food insecure in 2018 (marginal 3.7%, moderate 5.5% and severe 3.2%)."
* "44% of Canadians say it would be difficult to meet their obligations if their pay was delayed by one week."
* The federal government's Reaching Home: Canada's Homelessness Strategy provides the national perspective
* From the archive (and as an example of what public education about the issue can look like) ... Excerpts from a FAQ prepared by the District of Sooke in July 2020 to inform residents about local homelessness during COVID:
Q: Where is this money coming from for this shelter? Is there a cost of this to the District of Sooke? When will we see a breakdown of the costs that will be incurred to ensure this is a responsible financial decision?
- BC Housing will assume all renovation and operations costs.
- The District’s role, through the EOC, was to find a suitable location. This has been done.
Q: How will you keep the surrounding neighbourhood and residents safe?
- As was the case at SEAPARC, and the camp at the park, the RCMP will be assisting with maintaining ongoing safety at the new temporary shelter and the surrounding community.
Q: Will the members of the community have a say in the operation of the shelter?
- The Sooke Region Communities Health Network will provide on-site operations. As well, multiple resource agencies - including the Sooke Shelter Society, AVI Health and Community Services, as well as Island Health will provide wrap-around services to residents.
- The RCMP is also a key member of the community that will be keeping residents at the shelter, as well as the surrounding community, safe.
- It is in everyone’s best interests to ensure Sooke remains a caring, inclusive and safe place to call home.
Q: What other services are you providing to the community to ensure our safety and that crime rates stay low?
- The District knows safety was maintained at both SEAPARC and Ed MacGregor Park and we fully expect the same will hold true at the new site. For more details, please reach out to the RCMP.
Q: If the shelter becomes a problem (I.e. an increased rate in crime, the community feels unsafe, or other negative consequences), what actions will the district take to ensure that the problems are handled efficiently and the occupants will be evicted and moved to a more suitable location?
- It’s unfortunate that some choose to draw a direct link between homelessness and lawlessness.
- The District, along with its partners, will manage any, and all, situations at the new shelter in the same way it did at SEAPARC and Ed MacGregor Park. Both situations served the basic needs of our homeless population without major incident.
- The District sees the provision of the basic necessities of life as a hallmark of a compassionate community and we are happy to do our part. Housing our community’s most vulnerable will benefit everyone in our community.
- This is an interim and temporary fix to the problem of homelessness in Sooke that existed long before the pandemic. And it’s why Sooke has been working closely with BC Housing and the Province to build affordable housing including shelter rate accommodation.
- A number of projects are on the go including development of two adjacent properties located at Drennan Street and Sooke Road as well as an additional property located at Charters . The projects offer stable (shelter rate) housing for those experiencing homelessness, and able to live independently. Some of the Charters housing units are expected to be ready in 2021.
Q: Does the district have a plan? Or is it something that the district will attempt to navigate as you go?
- The District does have a plan and sees this interim shelter as a bridge to our long-term homelessness and supportive housing efforts. For example, announced in December 2018, the District of Sooke and the CRD Board, in partnership with the BC government, recommended land acquisition and development of two adjacent properties located at Drennan Street and Sooke Road as well as an additional property located at Charters. The projects offer stable (shelter-rate housing for those experiencing homelessness, and able to live independently)."