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Victoria councillors are calling on the Westshore to step up

Councillors say the capital city has borne the burden of intersecting crises

The demands on municipalities to meaningfully address the opioid and intersecting homelessness crisis grows year by year. And while opioid deaths in Victoria saw a marginal drop this past year, a walk down Pandora Avenue or Douglas Street will tell you that it’s far from over.  

Though the crisis is not unique to the capital, there is a prevailing feeling in Victoria, according to councillor Jeremy Caradonna, that “we’re doing too much, that we’ve taken on too much. The province has handed down these affordable housing targets but there are also supportive housing targets and people have to understand that. We have a low target because we have a lot of supportive housing. We are completely overwhelmed.”

In council discussion on May 13 around substance use and recovery services, Colwood councillor Cynthia Day said, “I know that the struggle is everywhere on the Island and there is no community that is spared.” 

Last year, residents in Langford raised concerns with police about squatters who were living in abandoned homes on Sunderland Avenue and peace officers are frequently called to the encampment in Langford’s Danbrook Park on Claude Road near Goldstream Avenue. Danbrook Park is the only designated park in Langford for overnight sheltering.

Yet, of the 832 supportive housing units in the capital region, 680 of them are in Victoria and currently, there are no shelters in Langford, Colwood or Sooke on BC Housing’s list. 

“We need to regionalize these solutions. We’re still dealing with a 20th century model where you concentrate all your services that support poverty in one place and that’s how you get a marginalized community. The new model is that you decentralize it,” said Caradonna.  

Colwood Mayor Doug Kobayashi told The Westshore, “I do not disagree with councillor Caradonna's position. It is my opinion that the City of Victoria is taking the brunt of [it] because it has the majority of the wraparound services and housing for people struggling with substance addictions in the region.” 

It’s the Field of Dreams conundrum—”if you build it, they will come.” But it can also be built elsewhere. 

“It is my belief that if provincial funding could be provided to ensure there are adequate support services and housing in the Westshore then it makes sense that these services could be decentralized throughout the region,” said Kobayashi.  

Some of the support to decentralize could come in the form of the federal Reaching Home: Canada's Homelessness Strategy announced in December 2023. The program will fund the development of coordinated partnerships among service providers, the mapping of a housing and homeless-serving system, as well as to establish inter-municipal governance structures to support relevant data sharing tools. 

Reaching Home will also fund the bricks and mortar in the renovation of emergency shelters, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, or non-residential facilities. The BC Affordable Housing Fund, a $13.2 billion program also provides low-interest or forgivable loans and contributions for new and repaired affordable and community housing. 

Tackling harmful substance use isn’t just about providing housing. Pathways to Recovery, a Canadian organization advocating for respect-based, full spectrum care for substance users says “it requires a whole person approach that recognizes access to employment, education, housing, and a full spectrum of wraparound services are fundamental to long-term recovery.” 

“Simply building 'brick and mortar' to house people struggling with substance addiction is doomed to failure without proper forethought on all the wraparound services that must be in place to support it,” said Kobayashi. “This is something the Westshore communities cannot take on without partnership from the province.”  

In step with his thinking, Kobayashi invited Trevor Botkin, Umbrella Society’s community development manager to present to Colwood council this week. Umbrella Society has been in the charitable business of local supportive recovery since 2015. Botkin told council, “Our interest in those spaces is primarily to make sure that recovery is accessible everywhere.” 

Umbrella Society supports those affected by substance use and co-occurring mental health challenges to access a broad range of community supports, including staged recovery housing, harm reduction programming and counselling.

Councillor Day asked Botkin, “What kind of magic does it take to bring out treatment options to the community?” 

“I honestly wonder why it's been left to charities to do it. It's a hot topic. It’s become a political football,” Botkin replied. “What serves people is investing so enthusiastically as a community and as councils and as politicians in solutions that people see they have hope.”

Building the regional supports Botkin is talking about requires dialogue and coordination between municipalities. It requires data collection and a large-scale collaborative effort that will enable municipalities in the Westshore to organize and deliver diverse services to clients in a coordinated manner. 

Victoria councillor Krista Loughton has been skeptical of the willingness of other municipalities to roll their sleeves up to meet the challenge to invest so enthusiastically. “You have to have the support of council in each of those municipalities, but they won’t. The councils aren’t going to vote for it.”

The mayors of the Westshore will have to prove her wrong.