Victoria pulls cash from its financial reserve to help its most vulnerable citizens

VICTORIA — Victoria Mayor Marianne Alto says city council wants to prevent some of the issues faced by its most vulnerable citizens, rather than simply dealing with the aftermath, even if it means stepping outside of what's normally seen as a local government responsibility.

The City of Victoria is providing $1.8 million in operating funding for a new facility opening in the coming months aimed at addressing the risks and impacts of homelessness.

The 5,200-square-foot "access hub" will offer food, harm reduction and overdose prevention services, as well as supports including referrals for wound care and longer-term health issues.

Alto said in an interview Friday that the agreement with the non-profit organization SOLID is the first time the city has directly contracted with a single service provider for this kind of wide-ranging set of services

The move is part of what she believes is an evolving understanding of what Canadian municipalities have to step up and support, to help those struggling in their communities.

"We have spent, over the years, millions of dollars, responding through maintenance, bylaw, policing, infrastructure upgrades," she said.

"(We're) dealing with the ramifications of a very challenged health-care system, impossibly unaffordable housing and a lack of housing, … a fairly broken set of social service structures, and as a result of that, the city ends up responding to that, and essentially picking up the tab for that response."

Alto said council spent months discussing how it could become more proactive, rather than just responding to problems.

"And the argument is that you actually spend less money in the end responding to it if you invest a little money upfront and trying to prevent it," she said.

She acknowledged that some of the services being contracted are more traditionally in the realm of provincial or federal authority, but said local government can be in the best place to understand its residents.

"I know them, they're mine. My residents are my responsibility to a certain extent," she said.

Alto said efforts by other levels of government to increase housing supply are important and appreciated but take time, meaning Victoria needs to do what it can while that work is being done.

She said the city originally funded SOLID to offer similar services out of a series of trailers at the beginning of this year, but recently the opportunity presented itself for the organization to buy a building.

Victoria also provided a $300,000 grant to help buy the property, which sits on the boundary of three neighbourhoods.

SOLID already provides overdose prevention services at seven sites in Victoria, outreach to homeless encampments, and other related services.

The city said in a statement that it will fund the program for up to a year with money from the municipality's financial stability reserve, which can be used in situations related to public safety and "emerging demands."

Jack Phillips, executive director of the group's outreach society, said in a statement that the facility is designed to be a welcoming space for people experiencing acute addiction or mental health issues who are underserved by existing services.

“We’re focused on providing tailored supports to individuals based on their specific needs and abilities rather than a cookie-cutter approach that often leaves people behind,” he said.

— By Ashley Joannou in Vancouver

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 14, 2024.

The Canadian Press