Last Thursday night, with my notebook tucked under my arm and my bike helmet swinging at my side, I waded into the throng of people crammed into the CoolAid Society’s Downtown Activity Centre for an all-candidates debate on homelessness, poverty, and housing. It’s about a month away from municipal elections in British Columbia, and on Thursday I was determined to educate myself about the millions of candidates that are running for mayor and council.
Okay, there aren’t millions—but Thursday’s debate had 24 participants (and that isn’t even everybody). I wanted to put some names to faces and hear candidates’ thoughts on one of the most pressing and serious concerns of our city: homelessness.
Seats were long gone by the time I arrived, but I found my own patch of wall to lean against and flipped open my notebook, pen at the ready. In a few moments, the candidates would take their seats at a table that ran the length of the whole room. For now, they stepped through the crowd, shaking hands and passing out leaflets. One handed me her brochure, then paused. “Are you with the press?” she asked, eyeing the notebook. “Oh no,” I said quickly, secretly pleased at the assumption. I bring my notebook anywhere there might be something to record. I’m just a weirdo who likes to take notes.
And it’s a good thing I do, because sometimes life provides you with all the material you need for a really good story. The debate was raucous, described fairly accurately by a local paper as a “circus.” Memorable moments included one mayoral candidate screaming at other candidates and at an audience member, and another candidate walking out midway, shouting, “You’re all crazy!” If you want more details, I suggest reading this Times Colonist article and watching this CTV clip. There were moments that seemed more suited to the municipal politics of Pawnee, Indiana, but this was real–and thus more tense than amusing.
The evening began with questions prepared by the event organizers (CoolAid Society, Our Place, and the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness) posed to the candidates, and then the floor was opened to questions from audience members. As I listened and scribbled at the back of the room, I was struck by a few thoughts about this challenging issue in Victoria.
First, questions of a municipal government’s jurisdiction, authority, and power to address homelessness
and housing came up again and again. Candidates repeatedly pointed out that the provincial and federal governments also must be involved in solving these issues—and that they are the ones with the funds to do so. Municipalities are the most direct and accessible level of government, and an issue like homelessness has some pretty immediate effects on a city. People turn to their mayor and council to act. Yet as one candidate pointed out, the budget of the City of Victoria is about $200 million. It might sound like a lot, but in comparison to the province’s budget (and the province’s constitutional responsibility for social and welfare services), municipalities are limited in their power to “fix” homelessness alone. Some of the candidates’ ideas about what they would do if elected to council were probably not realistic, given those limitations.
Second, I’m beginning to understand what a complex and difficult issue homelessness and housing is. Consider this: the sitting mayor and council have made housing a top priority. Currently, the City of Victoria funds the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness to the tune of about $100,000 per year. The sitting mayor has a background in addictions counseling and has worked with street-involved youth. These are people who care about this issue—it seems as though the “political will” people often talk about is there. On Thursday, the room was filled with smart and dedicated people working on this problem. Yet homelessness remains such a pressing concern for our community. Is it a lack of funding? A lack of support among the public to end homelessness? Provincial and federal governments that are dragging their feet? Well-intentioned but misguided policies? Some combination of the above? Or is progress actually being made, but just slowly? The Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness has the mission to end homelessness in our city by 2018, and I wonder how close or far away the achievement of that goal really is.
Third, I realize that a debate—particularly this one, with 24 participants—is not the ideal forum to hear candidates’ reasoned and thoughtful discussion on such a wicked social problem. Gregor Craigie, the excellent moderator of the debate, referred to it at the beginning as only a “taster” of the candidates’ views, and he was right. All candidates were limited by the format, but I noticed that especially those running for office who are not sitting councillors rarely had the opportunity to speak. Each audience member was asked to direct their question to a particular candidate, and most picked those they already know: councillors, the mayor, and a few other mayoral candidates. By the end of the evening, most questions were posed to the current mayor. “It’s turning into the Dean show,” someone muttered beside me.
Overall, the evening left me wanting to find out more, but not about the political candidates. I realized after the debate that I want to hear about homelessness, housing and poverty from people who work for organizations like Our Place, Cool Aid, and the Coalition, and from people who have had experiences with homelessness themselves. With the some of our main media outlets covering mostly the “fireworks” of the debate, I don’t want these issues to be overlooked–or for homelessness to be something our community and our politicians only talk about at election time.