Victoria wants homeless to be housed in empty hotels during pandemic

Pandora Avenue where over a hundred homeless people are temporarily living in tents and on the street as the city continues to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic in Victoria, B.C., on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. The City of Victoria is calling for the British Columbia government to take over its empty hotels and motels as a solution to housing the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic. T
Image Credit: HE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

VICTORIA - The City of Victoria is calling for the British Columbia government to take over its empty hotels and motels as a solution to housing the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Victoria council passed an emergency resolution calling on the provincial government to use its powers to house those without homes in empty hotels across the region.

"There are a number of hotels and motels fully closed that may welcome some source of revenue from the provincial government," Mayor Lisa Helps said on Friday. "I don't care how people get inside; if it's hotels, motels, arenas, community centres, it doesn't matter to me."

Housing those people would provide them with a safe place to protect themselves from COVID-19, she added.

If the government doesn't want to wade in, then the city wants to be able to declare a state of emergency and requisition the properties themselves, Helps said.

The request was a surprise for hotel operators.

"We were caught off guard for sure," said Bill Lewis, the chairman of the Hotel Association of Greater Victoria. "For the most part, every hotelier I spoke to yesterday had no idea this was coming and wasn't consulted."

The hotels are still trying to operate and asking them to house the homeless would place more stress on staff, he said.

"I think there’s a huge question mark on how you would house homeless people in buildings that are still housing the general public and employing people who have no training or experience dealing with the homeless community."

Instead, the association is advocating allowing hotels to negotiate on an individual basis.

Helps said she's waiting to see if the provincial government will intervene.

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said in a statement that it is working with Victoria to find potential solutions for its homeless population's housing needs.

Victoria's request comes as cities across the country grapple with the issue of looking after the vulnerable section of residents.

BC Housing has found a place in hotels, motels and community centres for over 900 homeless people who needed to self-isolate across the province.

It's a similar story in Alberta, where a Calgary hotel has been converted into an isolation site for people without a home.

Toronto is working to buy and lease hotels to house its estimated 8,000 nightly homeless population.

"If all we do is provide a short-term relief during the COVID-19 pandemic, only to return people back to their shelters after the fact, we will have recreated the same dangerous circumstances that we had before," said Coun. Joe Cressy, the chair of the city's board of health. "The objective here, if we do this right, is to not only provide immediate housing for those at risk of COVID-19 in the homeless community, but also permanent housing solutions so that we solve homelessness afterwards as well."

Purchasing or renting hotels provides a safe space for people without a home and helps the city's economic picture, he added.

"Hotels are empty to begin with, but also a lot of potential development sites or sites that were slated for development with the uncertain financial market right now, many of those owners are keen to sell,” Cressy said in an interview Friday.

The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness said an estimated 35,000 people live on the streets and in shelters across Canada every night.

The group praised Victoria’s resolution, saying it has been pushing various levels of government for over a month for a dedicated solution for homeless populations across Canada.

"The thing we’ve been observing across the country is that provincial public health officials have been very, very slow to respond to the needs of people experiencing homelessness across Canada," said Tim Richter, the group's president.

Victoria's resolution makes sense, he said, and he hopes more communities look at using space that isn't being used to house people experiencing homelessness.

— By Nick Wells in Vancouver.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 17, 2020.


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