At COVID-19 tenting sites, residents find peace

But funding for the successful program is still in limbo.

Last Thursday, Cherlyn Peake sits with her dog Misty at a picnic table near the tent she calls home and shares how much her life has improved during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s been awesome,” she says. 

Peake is one of more than 50 people who have found a temporary home at five tenting sites in the Cowichan region — three in the Duncan area plus sites in Chemainus and Ladysmith. The COVID-19 Cowichan Task Force for Vulnerable Populations, a coalition of local groups, organized the temporary shelter plan for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. 

“I’m far more relaxed. I’m a lot happier, probably a lot easier to get along with. I don’t feel like I’m bitchy all the time. I don’t feel so guarded,” Peake says. “I don’t have to be worried about somebody coming up and hurting me or taking my dog or saying, ‘Wake up, you’ve got to move’ at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

Peake has come a long way since The Discourse Cowichan reached her briefly by phone in late March. She said then that her hard life living on the streets of Duncan had gotten even harder due to COVID-19’s impact on local services and facilities

Peake, who grew up in Lake Cowichan, was one of the first people to move into the tenting site on St. Julian Street in Duncan, in late May. She says that within a few days she felt healthier — physically, mentally and emotionally. Peake has gained back needed weight, no longer has to carry around all her stuff wherever she goes out of fear of theft, and is able to sleep in, she says. 

By accounts of residents, support staff and neighbours, the tenting site experiment has been a great success. Like at the temporary housing at the Ramada Duncan, residents say they are happier and healthier. And there appear to be fewer people hanging out on the streets. 

The success of the program bodes well for the plan to build about 100 units of supportive housing in Duncan and North Cowichan, which BC Housing announced last week. That’s the long-term plan to ensure those who found temporary shelter in the pandemic aren’t just kicked to the curb. But the near-term future of residents of the tenting sites and the hotel is uncertain. Phase 1 funding for that project runs dry after June 30, and residents are still waiting to hear where they will rest their heads after that. 

A win-win for the community

According to local staff of the Canadian Mental Health Association, there have been noticeably fewer people on the streets outside Warmland House since the temporary shelters opened. It’s one the visible impacts in the community that are winning over skeptics. 

“If I had known they were going to be putting in a tent site a block and half away [on St. Julian Street], I would have fought it tooth and nail,” says Travis Berthiaume, franchise owner of the Dairy Queen on the Trans Canada Highway. He says he and his staff had noticed a dramatic reduction in vagrancy, vandalism and waste before they even knew the tenting site was there. 

He says he went out with the Cowichan Clean Up volunteer group for the first time in a while a few weeks ago, and couldn’t believe how much less stuff there was to clean up than usual. He says that those involved in the clean up efforts credit the temporary shelters. 

“It’s been a huge help,” he says. “I hope it stays this way.”

North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring also says he was impressed by what he saw on a recent clean-up walk. He tells me on June 10 that bylaw officers have not received any complaints about behaviour at the various tenting sites. “They’ve all been very well run,” he says. “It’s working really well.”

A transformative experience

The tenting site at St. Julian Street is in a parking lot that Jean Flynn remembers as “my drinking alley.” Flynn says she quit drinking about nine years ago while living at the Warmland House shelter. Now she is now a homeless outreach worker with the CMHA. She says it’s wonderful to see what’s happening at the tenting site now.

“Look at them,” Flynn says. “They’re peaceful; they’re happy. There’s no cops here. There’s nobody running in and out stealing things.”

Jean Flynn and Donna Dunnigan, outreach workers with the Canadian Mental Health Association, regularly check on residents of the St. Julian Street tenting site. Photo by David Minkow/The Discourse Cowichan

She and Donna Dunnigan, who have worked together as a homeless outreach team for several years, check in regularly with residents at the St. Julian and other tenting sites. They and others tell me that knowing where people are likely to be during daytime hours makes it easier to support their clients. Services can be brought to residents, and medical needs are addressed on site.

“Now they have some stability, and it’s everything,” Dunnigan says. “I have not heard anything from anyone as of yet who has anything negative to say about being in here. … They feel so fortunate to be here, and they can just now relax.”

Relationships between clients have improved, too, Dunnigan says. Tensions between groups, for example those who primarily use alcohol versus those who primarily use other drugs, have greatly diminished, she says. 

Tenting sites, not tent cities

Many attribute the success of the tenting sites to the controls and support the task force put in place. 

The task force put thought and care into making sure the sites were orderly and well managed, says John Horn, executive director of the Cowichan Housing Association and chairperson of the task force.

In addition to limiting numbers to a dozen people per location, residents were hand-picked by staff at the organizations managing each site, with input from residents. These include the Ladysmith Resources Centre Association, Cowichan Women Against Violence, Hiiye’yu Lelum House of Friendship, Cowichan Neighbourhood House, and the Canadian Mental Health Association. 

As of Monday, the tenting site at the Fuller Lake Arena in Chemainus is at half-capacity, while the other sites – St. Julian Street, The Mound (exclusively for Cowichan Tribes members), the women’s shelter site in Cowichan Community Centre overflow parking lot, and on Buller Street in Ladysmith – are full.

Tenters get three meals a day, access to shower facilities, and regular wellness checks and other support services. Residents have to agree to abide by the rules of the temporary shelter, which includes no visitors inside the shelter areas, Horn explains. There are also regular security patrols.

Each site has covered areas for eating and hanging out, and at least one portable toilet. The tents are roomy, with a cot inside. Some residents have attached tarps to the fencing to provide shade. In response to recent rains, some tents have been lifted onto pallets, and some sites now have trenches to divert water.

Jeffrey Bell and Cherlyn Peake stand in the St. Julian Street tenting site, which has been their temporary home. Photo by David Minkow/The Discourse

The tenting sites haven’t appealed to everybody experiencing homelessness. Jeffrey Bell, 42, another resident of the St. Julian Street site, says that some people still living on the street worry that the tent sites are like concentration camps. “They all think: we’re getting lined up to die.” 

Peake says she was a bit skeptical, before she moved in. She purposely selected a corner spot where one side of the privacy fencing is up against a building so that she could climb over and escape if needed. But now, people feel safe enough to leave bikes unlocked near tents, Peake says. And she feels for those still sleeping on the sidewalk or in the bush: “They don’t have any clue how nice it is here.”

Now, what?

Phase 1 funds, totalling $392,000, dry up at the end of this month. The money came from BC Housing and the Victoria Foundation’s Rapid Relief Fund. The task force has yet to secure funding to extend the program, and residents and staff say the uncertainty is causing anxiety and stress. 

The new supportive housing is expected to be ready in early 2021. But now, the lives of about 100 people, briefly improved by temporary shelter and support, hang in the balance. 

“I just pray and hope that this can keep going because we don’t have nothing in Duncan,” says Flynn, the outreach worker. “It’s heartbreaking. We have to give these guys a chance.” [end]

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