This week, residents of the Saanich tent city, Camp Namegans, will be evicted from their current location in Regina Park without the requirement that housing be provided by the government. In 2016, Judge Hinkson required that housing be provided before residents of Super Intent City were displaced from the courthouse lawn. Judge Hinkson’s decision reflected the fact that housing is a basic determinant of health and a human right – and that displacing residents without providing an alternative would be unjust and potentially dangerous.
We are all very well aware that there is a lack of affordable housing in Greater Victoria and that even people earning a decent living can quickly use the majority of their income for rent. To make matters worst, rent is expected to go up by 4.5 per cent in 2019. Supportive housing, while affordable, is unavailable with 1,400 people on the waiting list in Greater Victoria alone. In situations of extreme poverty, the options are limited to living in crowded shelters or on the streets.
There is clear evidence that homelessness increases risks to health and well-being contributing to premature aging and even early death. So, while neighbors and elected officials may not like tent cities and may want them gone, they are a form of self-help initiated by people with direct experience of homelessness in the absence of other options.
The decision to displace Camp Namegans was focused on concerns regarding risk of fire, highway collision, and criminality. If you are a fire safety expert, you see fire safety issues. If you are in law enforcement, you see policing issues. If you are a highway safety supervisor, you see highway safety issues. These individuals are doing their jobs. However, the challenge is when these risks are allowed to dominate as if they are the only risks faced by homeless people. These assessments of risks are often based on standards that assume that everyone has access to housing and financial resources. This is not the case for homeless people.
Across this country, many communities are seeking solutions to address homelessness. Among the multitude of solutions tried and tested, Housing First has emerged as a clear winner not legal actions. Housing First means that people are immediately housed without conditions or expectations of housing readiness. In one of the largest studies of its kind in the world, the At Home/Chez Soi project followed 1,000 people and found that 80 per cent of them were still housed after one year. People in Housing First programs use less health services, spend less time in the legal system and have improved community integration and quality of life. Like anyone, people experiencing homelessness are better able to find stability, health and quality of life if they receive housing first.
Housing First is official federal government policy in Canada. Cities across the country have implemented Housing First and some communities like Medicine Hat Alberta have dramatically reduced or ended homelessness. The Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness has endorsed a Housing First approach for almost a decade. Our community has sought to increase the supply of housing in order to make Housing First a reality in our community. Although there are promises of housing, these are not yet a reality. That reality is being lived by tent city residents who have nowhere to go right now. With few resources, tent cities, in the absence of affordable and acceptable housing help to mitigate these harms creating community where people experience increased health and safety.
So, if tent cities pose such high risks, why are we not treating this as a public health emergency and immediately setting up temporary housing? In the absence of an affordable housing supply, solutions such as rental supplements, tiny houses, and modular housing can be implemented immediately. As a community we have failed to act on the evidence or work towards national goals of ending homelessness. We will be held accountable for the failure to implement evidence-based solutions to homelessness and we will be called to apologize for failing to act on the evidence.
- Bernie Pauly is a registered nurse,a professor at UVic’s School of Nursing and a scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research.
- Marilou Gagnon is a registered nurse, an associate professor in UVic’s School of Nursing and president of the Harm Reduction Nurses Association.