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Victoria hotel owners balk at being forced to house homeless

Hotel owners don’t want people with mental-health and addiction problems staying in their properties
Photo: Rob Kruyt

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps wants the B.C. government to use its emergency powers to requisition empty hotel and motel rooms for the homeless during the COVID-19 outbreak.

On April 16 Victoria council passed a motion urging the provincial government to use its emergency powers to requisition empty motel and hotel rooms for people without homes. Failing that, the city wants the power to declare a local state of emergency, so it can requisition the rooms.

Helps told reporters that the city has “hit a wall” after working hard on the issue with B.C. Housing and Island Health for the past month.

She said B.C. Housing requires increased powers to secure the rooms, while Island Health needs more resources to provide supports to people once they move off the street.

“It is absolutely naive to think that COVID-19 will not hit the unsheltered population in our city, and when it does, those people are going to be using the same hospital beds and acute-care beds that everybody else will,” she said.

Bill Lewis, who chairs the Hotel Association of Greater Victoria, said his colleagues are sympathetic to the situation in Victoria and the ongoing effort to find homes for hundreds of people now living in tents on Pandora Avenue and in Topaz Park.

He noted that some hoteliers are already leasing space voluntarily to B.C. Housing, and he said the association supports that process.

“But in terms of requisitioning or forcing hotels, we don’t believe that it’s a solution to be forced on us,” he said.

For one thing, the association questions whether a traditional hotel setting is the right place for people without homes, given the extensive health and social supports many of them will require.

Safety and security of staff is also a concern, he said. 

“We’re not in the nature of dealing with that clientele.”

As well, many hotels and motels are still open and trying to generate revenue from essential travel in order to keep people employed, he said. 

“We don’t believe that forcing homeless people into hotel rooms, in hotels that are open to the public, is a solution or a viable solution for both the homeless people and the safety and security of the staff and the buildings themselves.”

Ingrid Jarrett, president of the B.C. Hotel Association, endorsed the position taken by hoteliers in Greater Victoria.

Nearly 200 rooms have been secured to date, but hundreds more are needed, and Helps said many hotel and motel owners have been reluctant to participate.

She acknowledged the concerns of hoteliers, but said that’s why the proper health and mental supports would have to be in place before people move into the rooms.

“What won’t work is taking people from Pandora and Topaz and just putting them in the Empress,” Helps said. “What will work is taking people from Topaz and Pandora and putting them inside the Empress or whatever other hotel with fair compensation to hotel owners [and] with a guarantee the properties will be returned in conditions in which they were leased, and most importantly with health-care supports for people who are moving in.”

Helps has appealed directly to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry as well, writing that Victoria is in a “crisis situation.”

“Maybe the province should issue an order to all motel owners noting that they must make their facilities available to B.C. Housing for whatever purpose B.C. Housing deems necessary,” she writes.

B.C.’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing issued a statement that did not directly address the issue of using emergency powers to requisition hotel and motel rooms.

Instead, the ministry said B.C. Housing continues to negotiate with motels and hotels to secure more spaces and expects to finalize additional contracts in the coming weeks.

Times Colonist