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What to do about Campbell River's homelessness

With as many as 20 Campbell River citizens living under tarps and in makeshift shelters in alleys and the woods, the city’s Homelessness Coalition is inviting community organizations to come forward with emergency housing proposals.

Coalition co-chair Paul Mason says the group will soon be advertising for “expressions of interest” for pilot projects to address homelessness in Campbell River.

Mason, who is the outreach co-ordinator for the Island Jade Society, says a 24/7, low barrier shelter is “absolutely” a priority. Low barrier means that a homeless person with addiction issues is not turned away.

The coalition is approaching the issue of homelessness from a “housing first” perspective.

“That’s what the coalition is modelling its actions on,” Mason says. “It has been proven in many studies of people in that demographic that finding people housing has very positive results. You find people housing first then you deal with the other stuff like addiction and mental health issues.”

Mason believes Campbell River also needs a sobering centre similar to one in Victoria.

Organizations or companies interested in responding to the city’s request for expressions of interest have until Feb. 29 to send a preliminary submission to city hall. Information meetings to review the guidelines will be held Feb 10 and 16.

Since coming into office Mayor Walter Jakeway has been concerned about a lack of progress at city hall when it comes to addressing the homelessness issue. In fact, he has put himself on the coalition because he says up to now it has failed to address the very problem it was created to solve.

“The coalition hasn’t dealt with one homeless person yet, after three years. The same people are on the street. Nothing’s happened. Somehow the bureaucracy has constipated the process and they have not been able to get anything done,” Jakeway says.

The mayor says one of the possible solutions to the lack of 24/7, low barrier accommodation is the purchase of shipping containers that are divided into compartments with two bunks in each compartment. “You’ve got sleeping accommodation for 20 people. It isn’t very nice but at least they aren’t sleeping in the woods. We have lots of people living in the woods,” he says.

Jakeway is currently trying to identify a site where such a container shelter can be placed.

Mason agrees with the mayor that there has been “a lot of talk, but little action.”

“I think the mayor is right on track. It’s nice to see someone who actually understands the homeless and sees it as a huge issue in our city.”

He says it is an absolute fact that “a fragile micro community” of 15 to 20 homeless are living in alleys and woods surrounding the city. “We’re not just talking about two or three people. We’ve had a tent population ... that live in the woods, that live under tarps and makeshift shelters.”

The Salvation Army operates two shelters, but each has operational limitations.

Salvation Army Community Ministry Director Kevin Mack says: “Our extreme weather shelter is open depending on the weather. We have a community committee that monitors weather reports. We relay that information to one another and then make a decision whether or not to activate the shelter.”

The shelter on Cedar Street, which can open from November through to the end of March, is funded through the Crown agency BC Housing. It provides 12 mats, PJs, toiletries and a shower. BC Housing criteria dictates that the shelter can open when the temperature hits zero degrees Celsius or when wind, rain or snow conditions are extreme. It has been open continuously for the past three weeks. “It would be helpful if we were able to receive funding throughout the duration of winter,” Mack says.

The extreme weather shelter is a “low barrier” shelter. Homeless people who are intoxicated are not turned away as long as they don’t pose a safety risk to others.

The Salvation Army’s second facility is the 24/7 Evergreen House. It has 24 beds plus three “crisis stability beds” often used by women is distress. It is a “high barrier” facility. There are rules and one is that “guests” need to be sober. And it is not running at capacity.

When the homeless leave these shelters in the morning many make their way to the Radiant Life Community Church behind the fire hall where Pastor Art Vander Holst and his volunteers serve a hot breakfast for up to 35 homeless people. The church also provides sleeping bags, tarps, clothing and toiletries.

Vander Holst says between 25 and 30 homeless people are sleeping in alleys and the woods ... anywhere they can find shelter.

He is “very supportive” of the mayor’s agenda. “That’s one of the things we don’t have here is a low barrier shelter.” He also agrees the city also needs a facility where the homeless can “get sobered up.”

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