COVID Signpost 100 Days: Spotlight on the West Coast

Hosted by Allison Ashcroft, Managing Director, CUSP, CUI Regional Lead, Victoria, BC. Featuring Janine Theobald, Inclusion & Collaboration Manager, Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, Karen Ward, Drug Policy Advisor, City of Vancouver, Sarah Blyth, Executive Director, Overdose Prevention Society and Leilani Farha, Global Director, The Shift.

Full Panel

Note to readers: This video session was transcribed using auto-transcribing software. Manual editing was undertaken in an effort to improve readability and clarity. Questions or concerns with the transcription can be directed to with “transcription” in the subject line. 

Allison Ashcroft [00:00:45] All right, I think we’re live. Welcome! Welcome to British Columbia. My name is Allison Ashcroft. I’m hosting this session today from Southern Vancouver Island, or the home of the Congonhas speaking people more commonly known as the song. He’s in assignment for station here in Victoria. Our conversation today in B.C. Is going to be focused on the dual emergencies of homelessness and overdose deaths and how that how COVID has exacerbated that and what’s happening in particularly in the two cities of Victoria and Vancouver. So to that end, I’ve got panelists who are all working on the front lines in both of those cities that I’d like to introduce to you guys. But I’m first going to start with sort of a more national framing, before we dive deep into B.C.. And for that, I’m going to introduce you all to Leilani Farha. Just give me one moment while I’m pulling up my bios here. So Leilani is the global director of The Shift, which is an international movement to secure the right to housing. So The Shift works with over 40 mayors across the world to advance the right to housing, including several municipalities here in Canada. Leilani is also the former U.N. special rapporteur on the right to housing. So, Leilani, talk to us a little bit about what you’re seeing in more of the policy context within Canada. You know, are these commitments to ending homelessness and overdose deaths purely aspirational goals in strategic plans, or is this something that we’re actually committed to doing? And if so, how do you see that happening?


Leilani Farha [00:02:32] Sure, thanks. And thanks for inviting me in to be to underscore and to be clear, I am definitely not an expert on what’s happening in B.C. You know, I, I read a lot and I talk to a lot of people, but I really wish I could stay on the whole call so that I could learn even more about what’s happening on the ground there. I think you’re all experts in that. I’m also pleased to be on an all-female panel. Thank you so much. That’s really important these days and very rare. So thanks. Also to say that The Shift, where I’m the global director, is actually being incubated by the Canadian Urban Institute. And so we’re getting deep involved in some city stuff that we might not otherwise be involved in. So it’s it’s super cool. So take my comments for what they for what they are. They are zoomed out comments, not on the ground, local comments, but hopefully help to set the stage here. I have to say that I am in my own state of distress about how homelessness and all that it entails, including overdose deaths, how it’s not being treated as the urgent and priority issue that it is. It is not being treated as the life and death issue that it is, both during a pandemic and outside of a pandemic. And when I say it’s not being treated as such, I mean by all levels of government, particularly national-level government, in my opinion, as well as provincial level government. I think because cities are on the front line of this, there is some sense of urgency in some cities. I got, “oh, my gosh, what are we going to do, especially once the pandemic hit?” But I’m not seeing what I would like to at provincial and national levels across the country. I don’t think it’s viewed, I don’t think homelessness and and and deaths as a result of overdose are viewed as human rights issues. I don’t think they’re viewed with the same seriousness as other things right now, like economic recovery, which I find exasperating. COVID, in my opinion, mandated the elimination of home homelessness in Canada, and I say that because all levels of government adopted a stay-at-home, wash your hands, physical distance policy as the principal prescription against COVID-19. And the law, like it, I am a lawyer, but it doesn’t take a lawyer with our with our logical reasoning to figure out that stay-at-home means you have to have a home. Wash your hands and physical distance means you have to have a washroom of your own with proper sanitation facilities. Physical distance means you need space. If that isn’t a prescription for the right to adequate housing for everyone, including people living in homelessness, then what is? And yet there was a complete failure at national level in particular to grasp, to take their own policy and say, “and you know what, folks across the country, you know what this means? This means we are going to help you eliminate homelessness.” That’s what should have happened. And I have to admit, I told national level government many, many times that that’s what should happen. And there was a failure. Instead, what they chose to do was to pour money into reaching, pour a little more money into reaching home and allow cities to do what they want with that money. And I’m not saying that that money was ill-spent, that money was spent on the emergency services that were required. But what they didn’t do was provide leadership, vision and a mandatory, leadership vision, sorry, I should say capital funds and a mandatory position that homelessness would be eliminated. And that’s what I think should have happened. And I’m I am. So sometimes people say, “oh, she’s a dreamer.” I am not a dreamer. This could have been done. Maybe it still could be done. But this definitely could be done. It’s not a vision. It’s not a goal. We are one of the wealthiest nations in the world even in the midst of this pandemic. So we came into the pandemic as the 10th largest economy in the world. We could have ended homelessness in a coordinated strategy, and I’m not trying to cut out provinces and cities. Of course, the people who are going to do it are at the local level and at the provincial level. But there was a complete gap, omission and absence of leadership on this issue, quivering behind jurisdictional issues, which I just I do not accept. If the national level government can put priority and urgency on acquiring ventilators to save lives, which they did, which is provincial jurisdiction provision of health care, they could have put a priority on the provision of housing to save lives. There is no difference between a ventilator and COVID-19, and a home. So, now, that being said, so that’s the bad news story. That being said, CMHC has said that they want to see homelessness eliminated by 2030. They talk about it a little bit like it’s aspirational. So it’s up to us to hold their feet to the fire and say, “well done. That’s a bold move from CMHC, one of the most conservative bank-oriented bodies in the country. Well done. And we’re going to hold your feet to fire. We’re going to help you. And here’s what you need to do, CMHC, to make sure we, at local level, can eliminate homelessness.” So we have an opening there and I think CMHC needs to hear from frontline workers, to to hear frontline workers say this is urgent and priority and can be solved. We also have a new National Housing Strategy Act. As some of you may know, it was adopted this time last year and it says that it is the housing policy of the government of Canada to recognize housing as a fundamental human right. So we have to use that to say, at to, we need to breathe life into that. They they are not going to breathe life into it. We need to, those of us who know this is a fundamental human rights issue. I can’t think of one that’s more fundamental to the right to life and right to dignity. A core of human rights. So I think it’s going to be up to us. I’m not seeing movement at federal level. My job is to make segue. That’s part of what The Shift is trying to do in Canada, is to, segue is not the right word, but connections, make connections between local level, provincial level and national level to get way more movement on this file. That’s enough for me. I hope that was a good energizer at the end of the day on a Friday. Thanks.


Allison Ashcroft [00:09:54] Absolutely it was. And Leilani, sorry you can’t stick around with us for the for the rest of the rest of the hour, but really appreciate your time today. And I’m sure you’ll stay connected with our frontline workers here who are going to be talking for the rest of the hour in the pursuit of the work that you do going forward. So thanks very much. Drop off as you need to. So I, I want to introduce the rest of our panel today, or our core panelists. So, like I said, all three of these women do critical work within Victoria and Vancouver’s front line communities. Janine Theobald is, incidentally, my neighbour living here in Victoria and she works at the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness. We also have Sarah Blyth, who is the founder of the Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver, which was founded in 2016 due to an increase in the overdoses in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. And finally, we’ve got Karen Ward, who advises the city of Vancouver on drug policy and now on the COVID-19 response to the downtown lower-east side. I think it’s worth noting that Karen, in her bio, you’ll see I just post all their bios in the chat, recognizes as an artist and an advocate, and her work is based on her experience of poverty, mental illness, illicit drug use, as well as she does research and practice and peer-based nonprofit governance and activism on neighbourhood planning. So around housing and homelessness, and since 2016, the overdose emergency which has killed over thirteen hundred people in the city of Vancouver alone. So again, the topic today here and the reason for why, even though I find these panelists and these two topics of homelessness and overdose deaths to be pretty intimidating for me, to be honest, I couldn’t help picking these two themes because I think these are the conversations that need to be had in B.C.. So I wanted to kick off our session first by, you’ll know that Canadian Urban Institute has dropped a report today called their Signpost Report, which is on their website. And I just wanted to read the generalized assessment of the B.C. experience here as as our opening. So from the report, it says, “over the past 100 days of the pandemic, B.C. has fared the best among Canadian provinces, with only two percent of Canada’s national based national cases, despite 13 per cent of the population. With only one hundred sixty seven deaths in the province from COVID, B.C. has the lowest number of cases and mortality rates.” So the way I want to open this up is I want to just flag that we have one hundred and sixteen hundred sixty seven deaths in British Columbia from COVID since its beginning and in the month of May alone, we have one hundred and seventy overdose deaths, the highest-ever recorded in British Columbia’s history. And there’s over 400 overdose deaths since COVID began. We also have some of the highest numbers of homelessness in homeless in British in Canada with over seventy six hundred I think it is something identifying in the 2018 report is as as being homeless or unhoused in in some form. So in the, the majority of those numbers are in Victoria and Vancouver. And so we have moved over a thousand people into shelter, but there are still very many more who remain unhoused at this very moment. So I wanted to flag those as the as the reason for why we’re having this conversation around the dual emergencies, again, of homelessness and overdose deaths. And for that, because this is about people, I want to start talking first about the people before we start talking about what our response has been, what needs to be the future response, etc.. So, Janine, let’s start with you over here in Victoria.


Janine Theobald [00:14:14] Great. Thank you. Oh?


Allison Ashcroft [00:14:18] Talk to me about what what people are what what the people you’re working with, what they’re experiencing right now, what what’s happened in Victoria today or over the last hundred days for them.


Janine Theobald [00:14:28] For a very quick context setting, so the Coalition generally doesn’t do frontline service or service provision in our work. We are a coordinating body so we’ve got a little c coalition, which is our staff group, our core staff team, which does include people with lived and living experience of homelessness, as well as our our big C coalition made up of service providers, individuals and memberships across the capital region. Our organization’s board also acts as the Community Advisory Board in regard to allocation, supporting recommendations of allocations of reaching home fundings across the region. So for us as a coalition, you know, Friday the 13th, we were having our People with Lived and Living Experience Steering Committee meeting and talking about implementation of our community plan to end homelessness, which is found on our website. It’s a five year plan developed through a collaborative social development framework, and that our job moving into the next fiscal year was to look at implementing that that plan. We were gathering and ensuring that we were going to be able to project how we were going to manage that with the activities that have come up through that collaborative work. Very quick, we were, of course, hearing about COVID and what was going on with that and then on Monday morning during our staff meeting was when we learned about the declaration of this emergency. And I, too, would absolutely argue that we are in a triple state of emergency with homelessness. Is people experiencing homelessness in the province of British Columbia have a life expectancy of 44-49 years for those experiencing chronic homelessness and that is absolutely an emergency agency and should be treated as such and compounded, of course, by these the drug supply poisoning crisis as well as COVID. So really, that’s where we were at at that time. And very quickly, none of us knew what was coming or what to expect. And we didn’t know if the person standing next to us on the street had COVID and our vulnerable populations, many of whom have health challenges. We’re at risk of getting quite sick if they were to catch the virus. So what we basically did was we were starting collaboration with all our partners at the different levels of government. So that would be the city and the province through B.C. housing looking at how to create a vulnerable response plan. At the same time, agencies were shuttering to be able to create space for people to social distance and wash hands and take care of themselves, as mentioned earlier. And one of the things that I can say then, I don’t really want to speak for what people are experiencing, but I can say one of the folks on our Lived Experience Steering Committee is marginally housed in temporary accommodation in a hotel, which is that he’s been there for a very long time. And he he called me because he doesn’t have access to a lot of information that a lot of us do with which the Internet and the Twitter and that way that we were able to keep up with the information and email and other forms of media. And he’s just like “I don’t know what’s going on. Everybody is going crazy. People at shops, they’re grabbing things off the shelf. Everybody’s freaking out. I don’t know what’s going on.” And, you know, he and I have his permission to share this, he says as a senior, he often plans his outings in the day around access to bathrooms. And, you know, he can’t figure out how to find a place to go to the bathroom anymore. And that is a, you know, there’s just so many layers and people not knowing what was going on. So as we were moving through this initial experience, we were getting feedback around people’s fear about their food accessibility. So even though we have lots of people who were sheltered or marginally housed, they would access food at the food bank or the service providers in the community. And there was a lot of fear about food sustainability. Lots of people didn’t know what was going on. So what we did was created a one page document that outlined what was COVID, what were the symptoms, how to prevent and then some tips from our lived experience staff members around panhandling and binning and different avenues that people might not think about how to protect themselves from what we felt could be a virus around every corner. And that’s where we sort of took our first step into where we became service providers because through partnerships with the city, which in reaching some reaching home funding, started doing some meal service in Centennial Square. And we were a bit worried because we were told not to have gatherings of more than 50 people. And we were seeing over over 150 people lining up through the day and we were figuring out how to provide this food and a COVID-safe way. We had partnership from health authority, peer-run organizations and harm reduction organizations that joined with providing handwashing kits and one pages of information, things from B.C., CDC. And people really didn’t know a lot of what was going on by virtue of that inequity in access to information, which will be a communication and information access will be definitely an ongoing thing as I share our experience through this. So, yeah, I think that’s it for now.


Allison Ashcroft [00:20:12] Right. Yeah. Thanks very much for that. And yeah, I would echo I’m just just as somebody who who lives in a neighborhood that’s, you know, a block or two off the 900 block Pandora, it became really apparent in those really early days to me who work, you know, I always work at home that, you know, just simply access to water to fill up your water bottles and access to broadband or access to the Internet and access to a phone to be able to call loved ones during a really scary time. Just really amped up the anxiety to a whole new level for those who who don’t have the privilege, you know, that that I’m sitting in right now. So thanks for that. Let’s move over to Vancouver across the pond. Karen, let’s start with you. And then, Sarah, you can jump in. Let’s focus on drug users who may or may not be unhoused. What what have you, what, what have the clients you serve or the people you’re working with, what have they experienced through COVID in terms of maybe, say, access and affordability of drugs? Just just for those who don’t aren’t as fluid and understanding how, you know, how people access their drugs and such, what what what was going on in those early days and what what did you see and what’s the impact of that to those two drug users?


Karen Ward [00:21:34] Well, I think first and of course, just as a justice was said, I think the first thing was a large, significant cloud of uncertainty. I mean, no one knew what was going to happen. And as as with every, you know, every facet here, the point is that no one actually knows what’s going to happen. There’s this sense that the fact that no one actually knows what’s what’s going to come of this, what’s going, what the progress of COVID is, because it’s a novel, a novel virus. It’s brand new to everyone. And that’s the problem. It’s a huge, you know, it’s like everyone in a lot of senses, people were saying that now now everyone feels like a a down-and-out drug user because no one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow or if there is one. And I think that was a I heard that from a lot of people. And that was, I think, a really key a key kind of insight. And I and that was one I really wish I could have had the time to to convey to the general public that this is how the uncertainty that people felt with not knowing if they could have any toilet paper, and if they what was going to happen with their particular concerns with… People who are in this particular situation feel all the time, that level of uncertainty, that level of fear. So so I think that was a kind of a starting point. As far as the drug supply, I think it’s pretty obvious that we have not in the neighbourhood had had a single COVID death. But we’ve had, you know, a lot of people have died a person a day have died of an overdose. And the associated you know, and then add into that all the other ways people have died. And there have been a lot of deaths. Primarily, I think, because people have been hesitant to to to seek medical care. And there’s a there’s a couple of reasons that the that that have contributed to the overdose deaths, but primarily it’s the supply which is, at first, there was very little change. And then there was a there was a very marked kind of increasing contamination, if you like it. And it’s there’s a few reasons for that. But the first one, of course, is that the illicit economy is still part of the global economy, we just don’t measure it, and those borders are still closed. All kinds of transit and transportation have been really not just disrupted, but take a really long time and it becomes very complicated. So add those problems in with the fact that there is it’s illegal and that, you know, there’s always a risk, the additional risk of interdiction. You know, there’s there have been significant changes. And I think that the provincial coroner cited the most didn’t really like I don’t think it was as clear as perhaps it needed to be. But the fact is that production has it has become a domestic in Canada. And there’s you know, it’s. And that’s that’s and that’s the from from production to consumption is always in the country or within the possibly for the continent. There’s there’s inexpert laboratories producing producing the synthetic drugs. And they’re not what seems to be the case. This report was only released last week, what seems to be the case is that the the chemical compounds are not as they’re not as well mixed. So there are there are concentrations of fentanyl that are extremely high. This was just this was just discussed last week in the monthly coroner’s update. And and that’s that’s very alarming. And that is to say, this situation is only going to get worse. And the solution is safe supply and then broad, broad-based supply. Because, I mean, I really do shudder to think of how this how bad this could get.


Allison Ashcroft [00:25:54] Understood. Thanks, Karen. And we’re going to move to we’re going to move to some of the response that’s happened so far today and what you think is required as next next level response over the next course of the next 100 days in particular. We’re going to get to that in a minute. Sarah, you want to add anything to to that in Vancouver and what you’re seeing through the Overdose Prevention Society?


Sarah Blyth [00:26:15] Yeah. I mean, obviously, I live or, I live, pretty much live. But anyways, I’m on the in the poorest postal code in probably Canada, working of the Overdose Prevention Society, we see up to 100 people a day or hundreds of people a day, actually. And, you know, we’ve just had like many of them that were in the category of isolation, but they couldn’t isolate because they had no housing. And so it was just, you know, a very stressful situation at the very beginning, especially because we didn’t know they were being told isolate if you had COPD or you had immunity system problems and everything else, but they weren’t able to do it. And so we were really panicking in how we were going to do the social distancing thing for people that were most vulnerable and also people that are vulnerable, helping each other because a lot of the people that actually do the work and are the heroes are also the people that live down here. And so making sure that not putting people at risk. And so it was a very stressful time and continues to be very stressful. We you know, yesterday morning started even before we started our day, we had a guy almost bleed out in the alley. We had to help him before the ambulance got there. And then we had an overdose happen just at the same time. Thankfully, because of Karen, we have a bathroom and we have bigger space outside so people can social distance. So we’ve been able to get some extended space and some of the things that we need to actually survive. But really, it’s really hard going home at the end of the day and knowing that some folks that even volunteer with us don’t have a place to go. You know, they come in and they save lives every day and they have they have no housing. I’m really upset at the federal government for not really stepping up to get them housing. Everybody it should be a right. I can’t believe that it isn’t. It obviously isn’t, because people don’t have housing enough. So I think I’ll leave it at that. Karen said mostly everything.


Allison Ashcroft [00:28:30] Let’s let’s let’s talk about response, though. What what you have what have you had to change in the way that you provide services over the last 100 days? You know, from what what was normal before? You know, nothing’s been normal, I don’t think in terms of a Downtown Eastside for a very long time and particularly related to opioid deaths. But but, you know, pre-COVID, what what what have you had to shift or what what’s changed in in the way you deliver your services? You made some reference to the assistance that Karen’s been able to get for you guys from the city of Vancouver in terms of access to just basic washrooms. What else what else have you had to do?


Sarah Blyth [00:29:08] Well, I mean, I have to say that, you know, we we couldn’t have any more stress in our lives on the front line with the overdose crisis and everybody dying around us. And so unbelievable to think that there’d be any other stress that could possibly come our way. So, I mean, that was for starters, how what are we going to do with this? How, you know, questions about what we do and trying to figure out along the way how to approach it so that people don’t aren’t at risk and vulnerable, that they get proper housing. We had to adjust some of our services for social distancing. Some of it, you know, we had to sort of scale back to figure out what we were gonna do so we wouldn’t put people at risk and educate people. And our job just got, you know, 10 times amount of work and then a bunch of services shut down. So we became a bigger key point of where people come for services, information, food, clothing, you know, just more more services we were providing and and just getting the information out. Thankfully, a lot of the groups, community groups, came together with the help of the city and Karen and formed a couple different groups the Downtown Eastside response, but also Series had a group that pooled resources, brought community groups together from the Downtown Eastside that hadn’t gotten together and they started to work together to develop a plan on how to get people water, all the things that they need, bathrooms. We had some tragedies along the way, obviously. You know, people don’t need to stress in the middle of a crisis. And. I I’m I’m not entirely sure what more to say, except for, you know, it’s been a very, very, very stressful time and and it’s unbelievable what people have to go through. I can I can for sure say that we’re like it’s we were in a war zone. We were losing our friends, planning memorials. Now we don’t even get to plan a memorial or go to a memorial about people who die of an overdose because we can’t because of social distancing. So it’s just made situations that, you know, are way, way more sad and terrible. And and it just feels it feels unbelievable. So the community has come together and helped us in a lot of ways.


Allison Ashcroft [00:31:53] Karen. Thanks so much, Sarah. Karen, before we move back to the island for a second, you know, you are the, if and correct me if I’m wrong here, but it seems as though your role is is to be that liaison between the Downtown Eastside and the city of Vancouver. Go ahead.


Karen Ward [00:32:12] Yeah. I mean, it is to listen and figure out what people are saying on the street, in a lot of ways. And it gets because we have, I mean, we have no, one of the things that we do, we have no print newspapers that people can access anymore. And of course, we had to close the community center. So there is, and people can’t gather, and this is a neighbourhood where a lot of communication takes place person-to-person. And, you know, and getting, so living to see what people are talking about, trying to get accurate information out, and to giving it to reliable, well-known, trusted sources is very important and and circulating it, I think that was the main thing that we need throughout. And it’s going to continue to be is is finding ways for people to communicate. And I should add that the you know, the lack of digital access in in in even in I mean, for a year, for over a year, I’ve been trying to talk to the BC housing and to, you know, to the government about just making Wi-Fi or broadband access in social housing. Shouldn’t have shouldn’t be something you need to make up an explanation for, you know, but that’s absolutely necessary as well as, you know, just the point that the has made for a long time. But it’s not just housing. It’s adequate housing. I mean, this is, you know, one of the other things that we had we did was getting, you know, in our private SROs, the ones that are, you know, the the ones that are not… Yeah. That we needed to get those cleaned and we had to begin to be cleaned regularly and professionally because, I mean, the management the owners weren’t keeping them up to anywhere near the standards to be remotely sanitary for people in this situation. And there was some brush blowback on that, because why are we helping? Why are we helping slumlords? You know, by giving them like those if we’re giving them anything. And it’s like, well, people will die if we don’t. And that’s and that’s you know, that’s the point. The simplest case you have to make, and that’s the core of the core of the problem now. And there are still I mean, that issue of housing. I mean, how can anyone be able to keep themselves safe? And when they’re split, there’s 20 people sharing a single bathroom. And that’s so that’s that’s not adequate housing. And and that’s and that’s not OK. So there’s, I mean, it’s really brought into focus the – I hope – the complexity of the issues that long-term entrenched poverty have created in this neighborhood and many others…


Allison Ashcroft [00:35:19] *broken audio* Let me go over… Let me cut in on you for a second, Karen, because your voice is cutting in and out. You know, what I think one thing I’m hearing, what I also experienced just hear in Victoria, is, you know, like I’m hearing from all of you is communication is a massive problem. And you know that and that’s just a flag for, you know, the Signpost report that came out today. We’re gonna you know, CUI is planning to produce a new report every hundred days. So a flag is this first report doesn’t have the word broadband in it. It doesn’t talk about communications. And for this community in particular, that’s that’s been one of the biggest severs for them and their inability to stay informed and to stay safe. Let’s move back to Victoria. Let’s talk specifically about some of the moves that have been made around housing. So, you know, for those of you who are tuned in that are not from British Columbia, I’ll just flag a couple of key dates that have occurred. So on April 25th, the province of B.C. said that we needed to get people in, those who were experiencing how homelessness we needed to move them into designated outdoor temporary shelters so that they could be able to receive some of those that in reach. Supportive services that was no longer available through the facilities that have been shuttered. And then by May 19, I think initially it was the beginning of May, they needed it was decided that those outdoor temporary shelters were no longer sufficient or or safe enough and that they and that that folks needed to be moved out of those door, temporary shelters. And in the case of Vancouver, out of Oppenheimer Park, into self-isolated rooms and motels, arenas, wherever else they could be provided with that self-isolation. Janine, talk to me a little bit about how you you were the site manager, I believe, or co-site manager at Topaz Park, which was in Victoria, that that outdoor temporary shelter. Talk talk about what that response looked like and then the the the very soon thereafter upheaval that that meant you had to move people out and transition people out of that, out of Topaz.


Janine Theobald [00:37:34] I’m muted, not anymore. Yeah, I think that one of the key aspects, and I’m hearing that from my co-panelists, too, is that collaboration aspect end-to-end across the sector. I have never, I come from a health background and I have never seen such action taken between the city, the province, the health authority, the service providers, peer-led agencies. And at times it seemed achingly slow given the pressures being faced by individuals experiencing homelessness, hunger, fear, not having access to the panhandling that they would and that that network that Karen was mentioning just about the spaces to gather and communicate. So it was at times it felt like a snail’s pace. But in fact, the mobilization of the site, creating enough access to washrooms and then the showers being opened in the city, making outside handwashing stations and providing services to clean the showers and COVID protocols. The volunteers, we couldn’t keep volunteers away from the site. We we had to create a schedule and really work with that. We had to support individuals to be able to provide donations in ways that were COVID-safe as well. So we just had this massive mobilization happen. We had health services on site. We had harm reduction on site. We had consumption sites. We had physicians and nurses that were able to provide safe supply prescriptions. We had pharmacies coming onsite with prescriptions for individuals. A whole lot of amazing collaboration with the support of local and provincial government that brought those services in a way, as well as food. We had the Boxes of Hope program, which was an endeavour that through some of the emergency funding and facilitated by the Downtown Victoria Business Association, where restaurants were bringing in meals that were prepared and again, within COVID protocols, to ensure that people were safely consuming. And we were able to employ people with lived experience to be the food distributors. There were so many layers of levels of collaboration and output that came in such a short time and not without other challenges, too. The tragedy experienced as well. So there was so yet we were part of a team of site managers. Dandelion Society had set up a lot of infrastructure and provided support and just really needing to kind of have that point person because of that 24/7 aspect of supporting the site. So I mean that the model that continued to evolve came out of that ground where we did not, you know, the ground was moving. Everything was happening so quickly. And it was, you know, even as humans. It was, you know, we had our own personal lives that we were struggling and not sure with what was going on. So it was it was a really intense and amazing time. And then as we settled into that experience, we got word that the oh, and in the middle of that too I just want to acknowledge that the city of Victoria I mean, from the get-go, the mayor of Victoria was saying that we need to get people inside to be able to self-isolate. The encampment was created as a response. It wasn’t a tent city. A tent city sort of organically grows and the community develops around that. There is an amazing, incredible, vibrant culture in the people in our community experiencing homelessness. And much of that was brought over into this sanctioned encampment. But it was definitely very quick. And the engagement wasn’t always as as thorough when that time taken for relationship building that that is so, so key to doing with and not for. And so then, yes, the announcement came and the mobilization of further sites beyond the 35 that the city had funded just happened so quickly. And this was a great, great thing to be happening. But it was also during a very taxing time for resources and capacity within the service sector. And we had a lot of our principles around choice and housing first models. This was kind of like a one-size-fits-all. So people were given this option. You can go here or not anywhere. And that mobilization of resource has been making a massive difference. And the promise and commitment from the provincial government to ensure that anybody moved into these temporary sites is now in would never it wouldn’t be moved into homelessness, they would be moved into permanent and appropriate housing, and again, that speaks to the need for choice in housing services. The sites that, I’ll just finish by saying the sites that have come online have had incredible inreach of health supports. Again, some of it’s right on site in regard to harm reduction, overdose prevention sites, peer support for people, peer housing support, as well as other peer inreach. There’s housing support workers, primary care inreach as well, and continuation of some of that safe supply access, which has been incredible. And we’re seeing a lot of really positive results. And it’s challenging for the people who were either not in either of those encampments at the time and are left outside, especially when such a large number of our community members who are housed, warehoused. It’s it’s it’s been a challenge across that as well. So a huge amount of work. Huge amount of success and a lot of learning along the way.


Allison Ashcroft [00:43:33] Good one. So just to round out what Janine was saying there, so two things is, is if you weren’t, on April 25th, in one of the two areas that they that they did, their homeless counts in and said that these people must be housed by a certain date, if you were not part of that, you knew to this day or have not been provided shelter as yet. And so there’s still a very big need here in Victoria. And I assume the same goes for Vancouver. And then the last thing I just want to say is a kudos to to those frontline workers, because despite the enormous overdose deaths that we’ve never, that we’ve seen over the last three months, it is climbing month over month. To date, there has not been, according to our fabulous B.C. public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, there has not been an overdose death in one of the motels or other shelters in which the services of frontline workers have been provided. So that is you know, I know, Janine, you had some concerns around putting people into isolation where community is often the means by which people are protected from overdose and by putting people into rooms on their own. You were you were concerned that that might lead to overdose deaths. And, in fact, you guys have been able to provide some exceptional services. And so you’ve you’ve you’ve seen those that has not manifested, which is a big congratulations to those of you who are who are providing work. Go ahead, Janine.


Janine Theobald [00:44:59] If I could add to that, I just want to really acknowledge the peer-based work that happens in regard to preventing overdose and peer-witnessing and peers keeping each other safe. Just really want, it’s it’s a real collaborative effort. And I just want to fully acknowledge because actually they have been leading this work for a very long time, so and it’s a cross-sector approach as well. So I’m just really. Thank you.


Allison Ashcroft [00:45:23] Right. That’s a good way to go over to you guys, Sarah. In particular, I know you’re leaning in there. So let’s talk about that collaboration. Let’s talk about, you know, one of my favourite quotes that I’ve seen from this week or from this month of of of of meetings that CUI has hosted is from this woman, Nicole Swerhun, who says that, “governments need to trust in the capacity of communities to act. People are able to understand the conditions of their own lives and they’re able to work together to better those conditions.” So let’s talk about the work that you do, which is really around, you know, empowering community to support one another and the need that you have. Let’s let’s look forward. What do you need from from government and others in order to empower you through the Overdose Prevention Society to do that peer-led support?


Sarah Blyth [00:46:11] Yeah, well, I mean, COVID had had a lot of terrible things come with it. Like, a lot of extra work. But it also really got the community together and brought lots of different to service providers together. So we were able to get masks from people from the community. They made us masks. We were able to get, you know, distilleries were able to make us some spray that you put on your hands, antiseptics and stuff like that through that smell like booze. But it was great and it was helpful to us. You know, we’ve we really were able to come together as a community in a way that we never had and people didn’t really necessarily have time to. So, you know, there was a lot of Zoom meetings, and I went into a lot of Zoom meetings and which I hadn’t before. And we were able to sort of communicate as a group. And, you know, some people who shut their services down had a lot more time to organize on the outside and call for donations, call for everything we need and right across the street. Now, there’s a place that Atira runs that has supplies, water. They have pretty much everything that you need in there, right across the street from where we’re at. Whenever we run out, we just go over there. So people in the community, you know, if there’s water, there’s lots of water bottles. Wound care supplies. Literally everything. Clothing, shoes. The main thing that we’re missing is in where I’m working is safe supply and getting doctors to prescribe. It’s it’s terrible to see you know we have drug testers that test the drugs that come in. The drugs have gotten only worse. We’re seeing all kinds of awful stuff inside the drugs. The benzodiazepene is in the drugs now. Is it literally…


Allison Ashcroft [00:48:21] Let’s talk about that. So just just because I want to I want to make sure you’re getting a chance to talk about what do you need. So we’ve got safe supply legislation in place right now. It’s not nearly done. It’s not necessarily permanent. Is that is that the move? Do we need to be making supply permanent?


Sarah Blyth [00:48:39] That’s I mean, I didn’t even think of that, that it shouldn’t be permanent. I thought it was. So, you know, we. Karen, do you want to add to that?


Karen Ward [00:48:48] Yeah. Yeah. It’s not legislation. It’s just guidelines is not permanent. The government the federal government has a sunset clause actually at the end of the summer. It does need to be made permanent. I’m actually in there doing this. Drug policy is such a contentious because no one actually wants to change anything. No one wants to end prohibition. You mean what are we going to do, defund the police? Yes. So let’s I mean, federal government has jurisdiction over over drug policy, over substances, through the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which we should rescind. It’s a mess. It makes no sense. It’s actually founded in the Opium Act, it’s founded in racism and colonialism. Let’s just get rid of it. And we need to eliminate the distinction between between drugs and drugs. We need to.


[00:49:50] We need to.


Allison Ashcroft [00:49:57] So again, again, we come back to broadband connectivity and how it’s not equitably distributed. So if you’re on the Downtown Eastside, perhaps you don’t have as good a high speed broadband…


Karen Ward [00:50:10] It’s um. I don’t have good Wi-Fi. It’s…


Allison Ashcroft [00:50:20] One of the things that one of the things I really like that you’ve caught me on Keryn earlier was you called me out on my terminology and it and it’s terminology that, you know, I didn’t make up. But I’m I’m I’m just speaking for, you know, and repeating what I hear from Dr. Bonnie Henry and such. And when she’s talking to, she talks about the overdose deaths that we’ve seen the month of May. And she and she’s referring to the opioid epidemic or the opioid crisis. And this is what we’ve been talking about. And FCM has it in its policy advocacy language. We talk about the opioid crisis. And you corrected me and you said it is not an opioid crisis. It’s an overdose. Overdose crisis, overdose crisis. You want to do you want to explain the distinction there and why it’s so important?


Karen Ward [00:51:01] Well, it’s not, as you say, openly in the media in particular, says opioid crisis. The focus then is on a drug, a substance, and actually saying it’s an opioid crisis does a lot of harm to people who are prescribed, who have been pain patients, does a lot of harm to their access. And it sets up a substance as being the cause, which is simply not true. It’s policy and law and criminalization and prohibition that causes this, and poverty and the rest of it. And it didn’t it didn’t like this isn’t a natural disaster. This isn’t just something that happened. This is a virus. You know, this is a this is an unnatural disaster. This was caused by choices. We don’t have to make them any more.


Allison Ashcroft [00:51:52] I am so um.


Karen Ward [00:51:53] The choices I mean are the choices of governments. By the way, you know, this is this is an overdose death is a it’s like the consequence of a collapsed system.


Allison Ashcroft [00:52:07] That’s right. So I think, you know, all of you have made points and I think I’ve talked to Janine in the past to the same the same is true of homelessness. It’s not about homes. It’s about all the root causes that lead people to be unhoused.


Karen Ward [00:52:17] And housing, you know, we need homes.


Allison Ashcroft [00:52:20] Well, yes, true, too. So I have to push it over to Mary in a minute. I knew I was going to. I knew I was going to feel like we didn’t get to enough. I am so disappointed that we didn’t get to more. I really hope that you guys will come back for a future conversation. This is such an important conversation for all of Canada, but in particular for British Columbia and Victoria and Vancouver. The last thing I’ll just say, you know, is to close back to where Leilani said leadership vision. We need capital funding. You guys need way more capacity. We need a lot of capacity and support and stable certain funding into those frontline organizations. And we need some mandatory positions around eliminating homelessness and eliminating over overdose deaths through safe supply and decriminalization. And the director of Emergency Management from Saskatoon on an earlier an earlier session today, Pamela Golden-McLeod, said there’s no excuses now in your time. We’ve proven we can. And she was specifically making reference to the Interagency Response Group, which is a coalition they’ve created during COVID of over 50 community organizations who’ve been working closely with the city. But her point is, we have shown that we have no excuses. It’s not about whose jurisdictional authority it is or whatever else we’ve proven we can, and in easier times we must. Mary, over to you. And thank you all so much. Karen, Sarah, Janine, I really appreciate your time. I know how I know how busy you are and how valuable your time is. Thank you.


Mary W. Rowe [00:53:47] Thanks, Allison. Thanks also to Janine, Sarah, Karen and Leilani, who made a cameo appearance there at the beginning. At what? What? You know, I always feel like I need to take a breath after we have a session like this. So much profound, honest things that you shared with us. And as you said at the beginning, Allison, before I don’t know if it was even before we went live, we talked about front lines, people on the front lines. You know, the code. It has acted like what we’ve been calling a particle accelerator. Every preexisting condition or struggle that was in place in urban Canada before the pandemic has just been completely accelerated and made much, much more intense. And we appreciate that that has manifested for you folks in terms of delivering the services you do and trying to have conversations like this while you’re also trying to keep people safe, save lives and all the kinds of everyday challenges that you you were already dealing with before this pandemic. So it’s a really perfect way for us to finish across Canada, check to just be reminded that cities are actually about people. They’re about how people find their way and live in shared environments and all the challenges that COVID has exposed about the realities of that. So we just can’t thank you enough for taking the time and finishing for us what’s been a six hit cross-country checkup that started this morning in the Atlantic region then we went we went west to you. We’ve had three sponsors that helped us with today, the Public Sector Digest, Municipal World and First Policy. We want to thank them. You know, I think that we saw differences across the six regions, but we also saw a lot of things that are very resonant and similar. And Allison, what a lovely summary you just gave. We have all these sessions have been recorded. The chat functions have been or have been recorded. They’ll be posted over the weekend. I don’t think anybody believes that there are any quick fixes here. But at the same time, as you just highlighted, there are no more excuses. All the things that challenge us now are just right in front of our eyes. And we’ve just got to come out of this and address the systemic causes. So I want to thank also I think there have been 40 panelists across the country today for which we’re grateful, including you folks. Also, we have neat regional leads that I want to acknowledge, like Allison, thanks, Al. Robert Plitt in in Calgary. Michael Champagne in, Michael Redhead Champagne in Winnipeg, Catherine Craig St. Louis in Montreal Gatineau, Kourosh Rad in Halifax. And also Arielle Kayabaga who’s a city councilor in  London who brought us together with a bunch of city councilors across Ontario for an equally. I would say an equally serious session. Each of these sessions have had their own flavor and they had different perspectives from the different vantage points that you each bring. It’s been a tremendous addition to hear different perspectives and different domains that you each occupy. Next week we have five more CityTalks. Four more CityTalks. And they’re going to echo a lot of the things that you raised today. So Allison’s coming on one on Monday morning, which is going to be what have we really learned over the hundred days from our CityTalks, previous to this and today, and also this important report, the Dr. Kate Graham pulled together with hundreds of volunteers and contributors across the country called SignPost over the weekend. In your spare time, everyone, all the listeners, please consult that report. Not an easy thing to digest. And you’re quite right, Allison, broadband’s not there. Volume two, broadband will be all over it. I can assure you. I can assure you. And so please read that report. There’s a lot to digest, as I suggested there. It’s going to take us a while. The other thing is that also that’s at or at You can find it at either place. The other thing is posted there are a hundred tangible actions from all the people that have done CityTalks over the last 15 weeks, including you, Allison, and smart things from every one of them, suggesting actions that people should focus on. I think when we’re feeling helpless, which you can sometimes feel after you have this kind of laid out in front of you, it’s good to just look at some tangible actions and see what people are suggesting is one thing, just one thing that we can be focusing on. It helps us move forward. The last thing I do is I just want to thank the CUI staff. Emily and Gina have been on from the crack of dawn this morning. And while she’s while they’ve been doing all the orchestration and all the things that we benefit from and those of us that are on Zoom calls and webinars know that really these two are really superb at what they do. It’s always seamless and  I want to thank them because they’ve hardly moved. And also, we have volunteers and staff and we have students and we have interns and we have partners and we have senior associates and we have senior fellows like Leilani. And all of you have been so important to us raising the voice of urban Canada, the real voices of urban Canada over the last hundred days and. Where we aren’t going to stop. We’ve got to keep keep those voices coming so, you know, it takes a village. It takes a lot of villages to build our cities and to build our communities to be just and resilient and vibrant and all the things that we want them to be as they emerge. So next week, Monday, where we’ve been for the last hundred days. Tuesday, part two of How do we respond to anti-Black racism in urbanist practices and conversations. This is Jay Pitter’s session with the same four guests that were with us two weeks ago where we had two thousand people tuning in again Tuesday at a different time, 11:30, join us then. Wednesday at noon, sorry, Thursday at noon, we’re going to talk about What do cities need to lead the recovery with the head of the new newly-appointed CEO of the Federation of Canadian Disabilities and the chair of the Big City Mayors Committee FGM, who also happens to be the mayor of Edmonton, Don Iveson, and then on Friday, we have a really interesting treat. We’re going to have a one-on-one with Mayor Latoya Cantrell, who’s the mayor of New Orleans, who’s been through a lot of these things. She was a community organizer through Katrina, and now she’s the mayor. And she’s gonna bring us perspective on all the complicated things that New Orleans has to how to survive in its 300 years of existence and what it’s now dealing with. So, again, thank you very much for being a part of this extravaganza. This whole day that we’ve done. And thanks very much, everybody, and thanks all our viewers who tuned in from stop to stop to stop, stop. It’s the weekend, almost, whatever weekends are. I hope you have a good one. And again, thanks very, very much for joining us. Allison, thanks to you and to you, panelists.


Full Panel

Note to readers: This video session was transcribed using auto-transcribing software. Manual editing was undertaken in an effort to improve readability and clarity. Questions or concerns with the transcription can be directed to with “transcription” in the subject line. 

00:19:10             Emily Wall, CUI Staff:     Today’s panel:

Allison Ashcroft –

Sarah Blyth –

Leilani Farha –

Janine Theobald –

Karen Ward –

00:19:34             Canadian Urban Institute:           Folks, please change your chat settings to “all panelists and attendees” so everyone can see your comments.

00:21:37             Allison Ashcroft:              Leilani Farha is the Global Director of The Shift, an international movement to secure the right to housing. Launched in 2017 with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and United Cities and Local Government, The Shift works with over 40 mayors across the world to advance the right to housing, including in several municipalities in Canada. Leilani Farha is also the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing.

00:21:50             Canadian Urban Institute:           You can find transcripts and recordings of today’s and all our webinars at

00:25:03             Canadian Urban Institute:           Keep the conversation going #covid100 @canurb

00:25:51             J. Scott: It could still be done if the Federal Government to were to release funds to Build Back Better in the recovery (water clean up on reserves, health and housing, unusual weather incident remediation just for a start!) and to reduce the huge hidden emissions of the military, if they immediately scrap the huge contributions to NATO that total $32.7 billion — and counting — as described in the 2017 defence policy p. 43: (this will go up with supplementary estimates every year. It states that a gob smacking $553B will be spent on the military over the next 20 years but this will actually be much higher with supplementary estimates.) This expenditure seems particularly egregious given the long-standing and enormous level of long unfunded needs still to be met within Canada itself.

00:28:08             J. Scott: If we recognize housing as a fundamental human right and decide to deal with this, we’d also look at defunding the police whose budgets also defy comprehension.

00:28:16             Allison Ashcroft:              Janine Theobald is a champion for Inclusion & Collaboration with the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness in Victoria BC. Her background in Mental Health & Addictions and System Transformation with the regional health authority has crystalized her conviction that a person-centred approach is foundational to successful and sustainable change. Through her experience as a Restorative Justice Facilitator and Mentor she understands the power of listening and relationship-building. Janine has lived experience of poverty, chronic mental health and addictions issues which became compassionate insight when working in frontline and leadership positions within the sheltering system. As a Board Director with the Victoria Multifaith Society, representing the Buddhist Zen tradition, she believes we are all intrinsically connected in our varied journeys through life.

Karen Ward advises the City of Vancouver on drug policy, and now on COVID-19 response in the Downtown Eastside, where she’s lived for over 10 year

00:32:01             J. Scott: See Leilani in PUSH, the film that documents the loss of housing to the economic goals of real estate oligarchs!

00:34:12             Allison Ashcroft:              Data around homelessness is spotty at best, but on any given night 35,000 people in Canada were reported to experience homelessness in Canada according to 2016 research reported by homelesshub.

A significant number of those folks are in BC and specifically in the greater Vancouver and victoria regions.

BC Housing’s 2018 Report on Homeless Counts in BC


A total of 7,655 individuals were identified as experiencing homelessness in the 2018 Report on Homeless Counts in B.C. The majority of these individuals were in the Metro Vancouver (3605), and Greater Victoria (931) areas. Of those responding to the survey:

  • 63% were sheltered and 37% were unsheltered.
  • 68% identified as male and 30% as female. Two percent (2%) of respondents self-identified a gender identity other than male or female
  • 20% were 55+ years of age, 15% were under 25 years old
  • 51% reported experiencing homelessness for the first time when they were under 25 years of age.
  • 29% had been in foster care or a youth group home.

See community

00:38:03             J. Scott: Washroom access in Toronto even pre-COVID was extremely limited and last year one international humanitarian agency installed locks on its bathroom doors to keep out “undesireables.”

00:52:01             Lisa Cavicchia, CUI Staff: SROs are single room occupancy / rooming house

01:00:09             Canadian Urban Institute:           You can find transcripts and recordings of today’s and all our webinars at

01:02:46             Kelly Roth:         We have not had a COVID death, however we have had overdoses

01:06:04             Canadian Urban Institute:           Keep the conversation going #covid100 @canurb

01:06:34             J. Scott: YES!

01:07:54             Andrea Lam:      Might it help to turn the video off so there is still audio?

01:08:17             J. Scott: Or a poverty crisis?

01:09:34             Canadian Urban Institute:           Reminding attendees to please change your chat settings to “all panelists and attendees” so everyone can see your comments.

01:10:23             J. Scott: Could we do this again to mark 200 days?

01:11:03             Ryan St-Jean:     thank you

01:11:03             J. Scott: Wow! Thanks to all of you!

01:11:04             Sarah Webb:      Awesome dialogue!!

01:11:27             Emily Wall, CUI Staff:     Please help CUI improve its CityTalk programming with a short survey –

01:11:41             Karen Ward:      thanks everybody for joining

01:11:53             Stephen Smith: Thank you so much for this conversation. So much more to do.

01:14:37             Ryan St-Jean:     I looked at my mobile bill

01:14:42             Ryan St-Jean:     it’s terrifying

01:14:49             Emily Wall, CUI Staff:

01:15:20             Kelly Roth:         This is rich dialogue, we need to capture all of this dialogue and collect the themes.