A candid conversation with Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps on how the City of Victoria is dealing with the challenges of COVID-19 and what the short, medium and long-term impacts on the city could look like.
Live City Check-In—One-on-One with Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps
A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation
1. COVID has hit the most vulnerable the hardest
Victoria has been trying to tackle homelessness on many fronts, from many angles and for many years. This COVID-19 crisis has laid bare just how vulnerable the street community is and the systemic inequities that have made the issue seemingly intractable. The capacities of the emergency shelters and safe consumption sites were cut in half when the officer of health called for social distancing. And the mayor pointed out a staggering statistic: there have been actually been more deaths in the city from opioid overdoses than have died from COVID-19 during the crisis on all of Vancouver Island. Indigenous residents have also been disproportionately affected by the crisis – and key to the City’s response has been its partnership and support for the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness.
2. We are all in the connection business now
The pandemic response has made “connection” a central role for Mayor Lisa Helps. Connecting with local business leaders to foster ongoing feedback loops, keeping residents informed through daily Facebook Live sessions and animating the city’s Neighbourhood Teams to focus on supporting residents with mutual support and caremongering. Connecting with other mayors on the Island continues through biweekly online lunch meetings, and more broadly, through organizations like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which this week asked the Federal Government to deliver at least $10 billion in “targeted emergency operating funding” to all local governments.
3. Businesses supporting businesses and the community
It’s no surprise that Victoria’s economy relies on the two to three million visitors that arrive to the island by ferries, flights and cruise ships. “This summer, we have to be prepared for zero visitors,” Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said. While that is a huge hit to the city’s economy, Victoria benefits from a vibrant tech industry, which has moved quickly to help local businesses get online. VanCity and Shopify, for example, helped the nonprofit Think Local First establish a gift card program to help small businesses. Another program, Boxes of Hope, was organized through the Greater Victoria Coalition to end Homelessness the and uses donations to support local restaurants that are providing hot meals to the city’s street community.
4. Responding with innovation and creativity
While Victoria has a population of 80,000, it serves a region of almost 400,000. And Mayor Helps says the city experiences many of the same challenges of bigger cities but without a budget to meet every need. Mayor Helps’ says her city has responded to the crisis with innovation and creativity. When tasked with finding emergency shelters that accommodated social distancing, city staff were redeployed to create outdoor sheltering areas in local parks for 350 to 450 of the city’s homeless. Grids were spray painted on the grass and tents provided through a combination of donations and purchases.
5. No going back: recovery and reinvention
“The lessons learned will be phenomenal” remarked Mayor Helps. As attentions turns to recovery, Victoria will be laser focused on ensuring that priority projects are creatively addressed through recovery spending processes. It is a time to reinvent how the city conducts its business, she said. Existing innovative partnerships such as the Coastal Communities Social Procurement Initiative and the regional Housing First program are examples that can be “easily replicated” by other cities. The Mayor also said the crisis is perhaps showing us the need for a “rewriting federalism,” a new arrangement to get cities the funding they need to deliver the services we’ve all some to expect from them.
Boxes of Hope, Greater Victoria Coalition to end Homelessness
Strong Fiscal Futures: a Blueprint for strengthening BC’s local government finance system. Union of British Columbia Municipalities, (2012)
Protecting Vital Municipal Services: Urgent federal recommendations to address the financial crisis in our cities and communities due to COVID-19. Federation of Canadian Municipalities, (2020).