It’s been a particularly rough winter so far for those living on the streets of Duncan and North Cowichan. Advocates are calling for action after the recent deaths of two people who did not have access to adequate housing or shelter.
28-year-old Josh Derrah died in the A&W parking lot of a suspected drug overdose on a frigid night in December, the Cowichan Valley Citizen reported. Two weeks later, on January 3, a woman who had been living on and off the streets for many years died on the steps of the Overdose Prevention Site (OPS) on York Road, also of a suspected drug overdose, according to local service providers.
“This is the exact thing we always are working to try and prevent, so it’s devastating to the social service community and certainly the broader community when we have any loss of life, particularly when we feel that weather has contributed to that loss of life,” says Shelley Cook, executive director of the Cowichan Housing Association. “What this tells me is there’s still so much work to do, and there’s a real price to pay for the people on the streets when that work is not done.”
Mourning the loss of a woman who was ‘brilliant and incredible’
Adria Borghesan, who has been the manager of the Charlotte’s Place women’s shelter since it was created by the Cowichan Women Against Violence Society (CWAV) in 2018, has requested that the Discourse not name the woman who died on Jan. 3 due to privacy concerns. The woman, who was in her 50s, had used various CWAV services over the past 30 years and was instrumental in changing “how we do shelters” to better meet the needs of clients, Borghesan says.
The woman who died was “brilliant and incredible” yet “explosive and prickly,” and someone who challenged policies that she deemed unfair, Borghesan recalls. When the women’s shelter first opened as an overnight shelter with 15 beds in a common room, it had a standard policy that if a woman left the shelter for any reason during the night, she could lose her spot.
According to Borghesan, this woman successfully persuaded the shelter that allowing women to step out to see a boyfriend, buy a cigarette or get high would be less disruptive to the shelter than having women suffer through dope sickness and the anxiety around not being allowed to leave and meet their needs.
Similarly, Borghesan says the woman who died on Jan. 3 convinced the shelter to change its policy on on-site cannabis use by making the medical case that it helped with anxiety and the ability to sleep in a common room with 15 women. The shelter agreed to alter the policy with strict restrictions requiring a doctor’s note and wearing a dedicated smoking coat (to keep the odour off items that would be brought back into the shelter) while smoking in sight of an outdoor camera. Borghesan suspected the restrictions would be a deterrent, and the woman didn’t appear at the shelter for a couple nights. But then she showed up with a doctor’s note and asked for the smoking coat.
Borghesan explains the woman had complex needs and her death represents “a failure of the system to support those who are hardest to house.”
Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples recalls that the woman “would say some of the most profound things I’ve ever heard a person say.” The recent street deaths are “devastating” and “a demonstration of how far we’ve fallen behind as a society,” she says. The stigma around opioid use continues to kill people — mostly those who consume drugs alone in private residences.
“It’s reflective of a system that has continually failed people over and over and continues to do so today,” Staples says. “We know what we need. We need to house people in facilities that are most suitable to meet their needs. And we need to have support services to address their needs as well. It’s not a complicated answer.”
Some progress being made to support unhoused people
It’s important to put the recent deaths into context, says Leah Vance, coordinator of the Cowichan Community Action Team.
“For all of the people that we care about who do pass away from drug poisoning, what’s less reported are all the people that are using the OPS who are accessing services,” Vance says. The OPS offers a place to consume drugs, knowing that non-judgemental help is nearby to respond to an overdose. “There would be so many more of those drug toxicity events without the supports, so measuring progress in this area can be difficult.”
The COVID-19 pandemic brought new urgency to the community response, and local politicians and service providers successfully lobbied the provincial government for some projects to support the unhoused that they say are largely working out as intended.
Last April, the 52-unit Sq’umul’ Shelh Lelum’ supportive housing complex opened on Paddle Road, operated by the Lookout Housing and Health Society. According to Lee King, Lookout’s director of operations for Vancouver Island, things are going very well, with “really admirable” tenant participation in a range of activities. Later this year, a 48-unit supportive housing building on White Road is slated to open, to be managed by Cowichan Women Against Violence Society in partnership with the Hiiye’yu Lelum House of Friendship.
The Village, which provides temporary tiny homes and wraparound services for 34 people, opened in March 2022 and is serving as a model for other communities, according to Cook and others. Delegations from Hamilton, Nanaimo, Port Alberni and Courtenay/Comox have all visited the site over the past year.
“It’s opened up a lot of eyes around what works in terms of helping people transition off the street, especially people who are really street-entrenched,” Cook says. However, she notes that this doesn’t mean it will be a permanent fixture in the community, because The Village, owned by BC Housing and run by Lookout Housing, has a temporary usage permit that only runs through this May.
King says that many of the people staying at The Village are taking advantage of available services that they otherwise wouldn’t if they didn’t have a roof over their head. “It shows that housing is the chief social determinant of successful physical, mental and spiritual health outcomes,” he says.
In November, CWAV used a portion of a provincial grant administered by the Union of BC Municipalities to open a warming station in a fenced area behind the Charlotte’s Place shelter on Cowichan Way at the old VIU campus. It has room for 10 people and is open Monday through Friday. While women are prioritized, men are welcome to be there if there are enough spaces, which Borghesan says there often are.
In addition to these newer supports, the Charlotte’s Place women’s shelter, which now operates 24-7, has a substantial waitlist for its 12 beds at its current location, according to Borghesan. The women’s shelter will be able to double its capacity when it moves into its permanent home on Canada Avenue by the end of the summer.
The Warmland House shelter — with 30 overnight shelter beds, 15 additional extreme weather beds available during the winter and 24 transitional apartments — is at full capacity, according to Lise Haddock, executive director of the Cowichan branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), which operates the shelter.
Many people still fall through the cracks
Taken together, the current spaces available don’t come close to accommodating all the people in the region experiencing homelessness. There are now about 300 people on a coordinated access list to get into supportive housing, according to local service providers.
In April, the Cowichan Housing Association will oversee the region’s first point-in-time homeless count since March 2020. Cook says that anecdotally the numbers have increased significantly since the previous count, which found 129 people experiencing homelessness and was widely considered a vast undercount as it was conducted in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when people were leery of contact.
An additional challenge, according to local community leaders, is that people with overlapping issues such as mental health, substance use, trauma or brain injuries, often don’t meet eligibility criteria for supportive housing or require care beyond what’s typically available in supportive housing.
“There will always be a percentage of people who need supports that are different from the majority of people,” Mayor Staples says. “You add the types of street drugs and the affordability crisis and you’re ending up with more and more people falling through the cracks.”
The provincial government is increasingly recognizing the problem of complex care, according to Cook. But while she has contacted BC Housing about the pressing need locally for complex care support, thus far the focus of complex care housing has been in larger urban centres, including Nanaimo and Greater Victoria, she says.
“What is underlying the issues and the loss of life here is a complex intersection of health and social issues that make it very difficult to support people in a way that really meets their needs and helps address the underlying issues,” Cook says. “It’s a very difficult group to support and do a good job of it. And we just need specialized resources to be able to do that.”
In her fifth year on the job, Staples says she is more frustrated than ever at the limitations of what a local mayor can do on an issue that has long been a top priority. She explains that the decisions that affect people living on the streets are being made by “upper layers of government” provincially and federally, which are playing catchup after decades of ignoring the problem.
North Cowichan Mayor Rob Douglas says that local government and community leaders need to call on senior levels of government for support. “We really need them [senior government] to provide the supports to really address these issues.”
Douglas says that last week a group of local leaders met with the new federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennet. He says that while the local contingent highlighted the good work underway, the group made sure the minister understood that “in terms of the challenges of homelessness, mental health and addictions, our community is kind of unrecognizable to what it was 15-20 years ago, and we’re gonna need help to really tackle these problems.”
Ongoing difficulty in finding a ‘place to be’
But even when a project receives funding at the upper level of government, there is often a difficulty at the local level to find a location and the staffing to implement it. This has been the case over the past year in attempts to establish a daytime “place to be” for people who find themselves unwelcome elsewhere.
Community leaders saw this as a solution to give people a comfortable place to spend the day, not just in extreme weather, but year-round, says Cook. And, the centre would help take the pressure off businesses and other public spaces that are struggling to manage public disorder.
“This is also about dignity, a point of contact with service systems, about allowing people a place where they can actually just be and spend their day in a more productive way than moving from location to location,” says Cook.
In August 2022 the province committed $624,000 to fund a one-year pilot project, but despite significant coordinated effort, local groups are still searching for a viable way to house and staff the program.
One of the locations considered was the courtyard at the Warmland House shelter, adding to the facility’s existing services, says Haddock, with the local CMHA branch. But she explains that the branch bowed out when they learned that the Municipality of North Cowichan would require a permit to allow the use of the space for that purpose, which would involve at least a three or four-month-long public process.
More recently, a portion of the Cowichan Community Centre parking lot was under consideration to host the daytime shelter space, but that proposal was tabled earlier this week after community outcry, including a letter from the Cowichan Valley School District board expressing concerns over student safety.
The search for “a place to be” is now focused on a couple of alternative sites, Staples says. She hopes that the centre will be open by this spring, before the first sweltering days of summer.
“This is not permanent; we’re not building a building,” Mayor Staples says. “We’re not taking something over forever in doing this. We’re trying this out to see if it does make a difference. We have to try something.”
It’s been a similar challenge to find an overnight extreme weather response shelter that would open up during the most challenging weather conditions, Staples says. “We’ve been looking for over a year for a permanent home for an emergency weather shelter and have been unable to find a location in all of that time.”
While not a permanent location, St. Andrews Presbyterian Church on Herbert St. was recently secured as an extreme weather response shelter for 2023. The CVRD opened it for a couple of days during last month’s cold spell, although the opening was delayed by a couple days due to staff illness. With a capacity of 30, the shelter, to be operated by Lookout Housing, will be open when the weather meets certain thresholds in the coming months.
Leah Vance volunteered there both nights during the cold spell and says that there were about 20 people there the first night and about 28 the next night, playing games such as Scrabble and enjoying hot chocolate and snacks from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.
“It was a pretty grateful and organized group,” Vance recalls.
‘When we lift those people up, everybody is lifted up’
Neighbourhood opposition remains an ongoing challenge to establishing new programs and supports for people without access to housing and shelter.
“When we do work to try to implement solutions, at least so that people stop dying, we’re met by pushback by the very same people who want us to do something about homelessness,” Mayor Staples says. “Why do I have to spend my time convincing people that because people have mental health issues or addiction issues that they shouldn’t go to jail for the rest of their life or be taken away? … It’s like, ‘Just make it go away.’ Well, it’s only going to go away if we actually agree that we’re compassionate enough to do something to support and take care of people.”
She adds, “You can’t just do a Village site, or a supportive housing unit and expect things to be solved. It’s something that you continually have to invest in. You continually have to look at, what are the needs now?”
According to Cook, part of the problem is that people with housing often don’t understand the reality of those without housing.
“People often believe that people chose the life on the street, and choice is not involved at all,” she says. “They’re trying to survive every day, and they make choices around that, but the choice to become homeless — it’s certainly not a choice anyone has made.”
Jan Bate, executive director of CWAV, says there needs to be space and sufficient supports for everybody in society.
“If housing was provided — in anybody’s backyard — that was well-resourced, then it wouldn’t be a danger,” she says. “When we lift those people [experiencing homelessness] up, everybody is lifted up.”
Haddock says she is fed up with the continual search for temporary fixes to the latest crisis. Instead, she calls for long-term funding commitments that service providers can count on from year to year. “We’ve got to move off this reactive stance and plan together, and have the resources in place so that we can give folks the kind of services that they truly deserve.”
Local service providers are also struggling to fill job openings to meet the demands for more services, Borghesan says. “It’s so great the strides that have happened in a really short amount of time in this community; we need the staff to match with it.”
She says that despite the challenges of her job, the job is rewarding and fun because of the clientele, such as the woman who died earlier this month. “You get to hang out with really unique, incredible, resourceful individuals and have really amazing conversations I’ve never had anywhere else.”