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After Victoria’s homeless camp is shut down, poverty thrust into spotlight

A court order forcing dozens of homeless to pack up and dismantle Victoria’s tent city on Monday hasn’t diminished the attention the controversial site has drawn to the growing problem of homelessness in Canada, an anti-poverty advocate says. The hodge-podge of tents, hording and tarps on the lawn just outside the court house in British Columbia’s capital drew national attention to the number of people sleeping on the streets.

“We’ve had people sleeping in the parks in Victoria, in doorways, for years and years, and because it was so disparate throughout the community it just wasn’t noticeable and people really didn’t react in the same way as they did when they saw the dire poverty and people there all together,” said Kelly Newhook, executive director of Together Against Poverty Society. “It was impossible to ignore.”

The camp grew from a few tents in the spring of 2015 to dozens of makeshift shelters. After a legal dispute between the province and anti-poverty activists, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled on July 5 that those living in the camp must leave by Aug. 8 due to declining safety and sanitary conditions at the site. The B.C. government was spending $184,000 per month on upkeep for the site including the cost of collecting garbage and supplying portable toilets, said Ministry of Housing spokeswoman Lindsay Byers.

That figure also funded community workers from the Portland Hotel Society to help connect campers with housing and other social services. With the shutdown of the site looming, many of the campers have moved into new affordable housing facilities funded by the province. Housing activist Christine Brett, who has been working at the site a minimum of five days a week since December, said there are many success stories as people have moved from the camp to social housing. “I’ve seen people that have come back super happy and really content to be in a place where they can call their own,” she said.

The province said it has invested $26 million last year to create 370 new units for shelter and transitional housing. But Brett said moving people into shelters doesn’t resolve the poverty that leads people to become homeless and calls it the government’s attempt to “sweep it under the rug.” The last homeless count in Victoria found over 1,300 people living on the streets or in shelters in February, Newhook said. Nationally there are an estimated 28,500 people who are homeless on any given night and least 200,000 individuals who access emergency shelters or sleep outside in a year, according to the Canadian research group Homeless Hub.

Part of the problem, Newhook said, is that government income assistance and disability payments are not increasing — or have been stagnant for years in some jurisdictions — at a rate that reflects the rising cost of living in many cities. A short supply of affordable rental or social housing in many cities and the current legal allowance for rental price increases year over year also puts those who live on the poverty line at risk of homelessness, she said.

“Housing is a human right,” Newhook said. “If we treated that seriously in Canada we’d see an improvement in standard of life of all people.” With the federal government having promised to develop a national housing strategy, Newhook hopes some of these issues can eventually be resolved. However in the short term, some campers in Victoria remain uncertain with where they will sleep come Monday night.

Brett said at least two youth who are promised spaces in new transitional housing are unlikely to move before the deadline because the units are not ready yet. “When the province can’t even honour its own promises to the court, I mean, why would the province expect more out of the citizens?” she said.

See full Globe and Mail article here.

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