As the snow settled in Victoria, the blistery weather offered a reminder of the realities of living unhoused on the streets of Canada – even in a place with generally mild weather.
The Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness hosted a candlelight vigil Dec. 21, via Zoom to remember those who have died while experiencing homelessness and reflect on the on-going housing crisis in British Columbia.
While acknowledging the irony that the vigil was moved to an online setting to avoid the extreme weather, while hundreds of people huddle in tents and makeshift shelters, Janine Theobald from the coalition spoke of the difficulties faced by people who are unhoused.
“Your postal code is an indicator of your health, housing is a social determinant of health and if you don’t have either then your life expectancy will be reduced,” she said.
The vigil marked the National Memorial Day for Persons Experiencing Homelessness, which coincides with the first day of winter and the longest night of the year, with darkness descending on the city around 4:20 p.m. and not rising again until 8 a.m. the next day.
Victoria Mayor Marianne Alto was present to read a proclamation recognizing the day and spoke of the impact of homelessness on the community.
“Here we all are inside, and at least in a momentarily safe space,” Alto said. “I think it does point us to the irony of us being able to do this, at the same time as reflecting on those important people whose lives have been lost in our community in the last year and in the years before, simply because they were unhoused.”
Others in the community joined to speak of the importance of addressing the climbing numbers of unhoused people on the streets of Victoria, including Chief Constable Del Manak.
“Whether people have a home or we are working towards getting them a home – which is a basic human right – we just have to really be careful that we aren’t judging, and that we are respecting people’s dignity and just making sure that we are looking after their basic needs,” Manak said.
The last count of the unhoused population in Victoria was done in March of 2020 and 1,523 people were reported as experiencing homelessness. The next count is slated to take place in 2023.
The vigil is an annual event that is usually held at the Whale Wall on Wharf Street, and each year the goal afterward is that the following year will be a moment to look back on progress. Alto called on her government and others in positions of power to make that happen.
“It is my hope that when we meet again next year, the numbers are fewer and it is incumbent upon all of us to make sure that is a reality that takes place and we achieve.”