The disaster on our streets

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*Note: this post may be updated from time to time.

Victoria is a great city. Friendly people who smile and say hello to one another on the street. Festivals, street cafes, pubs and restaurants. Mountain vistas, the ocean, the best weather in Canada. Government Street and Broad Street pedestrian zones, walkable neighbourhoods and regional bike trails. 

I could go on about Victoria’s advantages, and I often do.

We also have our share of problems, including the street disaster that plagues cities across North America: poverty, homelessness, untreated and unsupported mental illness and substance use disorders, violence and crime. 

Mind you, not all of the City is like that, nor even the downtown – despite what you might hear from a few one-tune social media warriors and out-of-town fear mongers.

However, the street disaster is real, and very significant.

It resulted from foolish, ideologically-driven government spending cuts of the 1980s and 1990s. Those spending cuts damaged the social safety net. They drastically reduced the building of public housing and other affordable housing options, threw mentally ill people out on the street often with little or no support, and resulted in overcrowding of jails and prisons (75% of people in BC prisons have either a mental health issue or a substance use issue). These are the upstream causes of the street disaster.

The pandemic of course made it worse; it required more distancing in shelters and reduced the number of spaces, resulting in the problems becoming more visible and the impacts becoming more acute. Sheltering in parks and on streets, human trafficking, violence and theft, public defecation, drug overdoses, repeated brain injuries, heavily damaged people dying on the street – while many of these problems have always existed in cities, they seemed to grow dramatically since the pandemic began.

Every single member of Victoria City Council is fully aware – painfully aware – of everything above. We hear about it daily from constituents, we read the news. Many of us see it; I walk around downtown, and cycle or drive through Pandora many times per week.

And we would all like to eliminate the problems, immediately. 

However, the problems won’t be resolved until those spending cuts are reversed and the upstream causes of the street disaster are addressed. There is no quick, cheap, simple fix. If there were such a fix, it would have happened years ago.

I have spoken with thousands of Victoria residents over the past couple of years, and the vast majority understand this. Fixing those upstream causes of the problems will be expensive, and it will require all levels of government to play their role. 

Cities across the continent will have to plan for and approve a lot more housing, especially public and affordable housing and supportive housing. Provincial/state and federal governments will need to restore the mental health care system, fund affordable housing, and much more. 

A recent op-ed provided a high-level, four-point plan outlining what needs to happen:

“1. Conduct an intensive outreach program with those on the street to build a relationship and understand how they ended up there, and what it would take to get them off the street, especially understanding their health, housing and sheltering needs.

2. Provide and place people in a range of housing and sheltering options, including emergency low-barrier shelters, long-term shelters, complex-care housing,* transitional housing, and permanent supportive and independent housing. Remove the street and parks as being the normalized, sanctioned, and viable housing option it has become.

3. Support people to access a range of physical, mental illness, and addictions services and interventions, including trauma-informed counselling, institutional mental-health care, complex care, primary care, transitional treatment, detox, treatment, and recovery; and move beyond harm reduction as being the sole response to people’s addiction and health needs. In extreme situations, this care needs to be involuntary.

4. Support the police and judicial system to incarcerate the small number of “bad operators” on the street — those who are dangerous, and extremely physically and sexually violent, and those who traffic unhoused people, mainly women — and repeat offenders. This is not criminalizing homelessness or poverty but recognizing that unhoused people are disproportionately the victims of crime and deserve the same protection as housed citizens.”

Julian Daly and Nathan Medd, “A four-point plan to ease the suffering on our streets

In order for this to happen, governments will need to feel pressure to act. The City of Victoria feels this pressure; as the downtown of the entire region, Victoria carries an outsized and unfair share of the load of the street disaster.

But other governments don’t necessarily feel the pressure, or at least not to the same degree.

Making them feel the pressure will require a wide range of citizens to contact elected officials at all levels of government – municipal, regional, provincial and federal – and demand action to address those root causes, rather than just attempting to manage the symptoms.

* complex care housing is further explained in this Complex Care Housing Fact Sheet