‘Like a family’: After a long search, Cowichan women’s shelter finds a new home

The Cowichan Women Against Violence Society thanks the community for rallying to find a new location.

Update, Aug. 27, 2021: The Cowichan Women Against Violence Society has found a new location for the shelter. The location is not public, in order to protect residents’ privacy. In a statement, the society said:

“Cowichan Women Against Violence is very grateful for this community and how people rallied to help find a new home for the Women’s Night Shelter. CWAVS wants to THANK all of the individuals, The Discourse, JUICE FM, the municipal councils and boards, the supportive housing community – everyone who helped to find a new safe location for these unhoused women who need all of us to stand up for them and their rights to basic needs. For the next year, the Women’s Night Shelter has a home. Thank you Cowichan Valley!!”

The following article was published on Aug. 11, when the society was still desperately searching.

Sixty-one-year-old Suzanne Robinson is worried that she may soon have to go back to living on the streets of Duncan. She is one of eight women who live at the women’s shelter operated by the Cowichan Women Against Violence Society, and they all are facing eviction at the end of the month unless a new location is found.

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“I’m scared,” says Robinson, who moved last December into the shelter, which is currently located in the small blue building in the field behind the Vancouver Island University campus. ”I never want to be out on the street again, ever. This has become my home.”

The clients at the shelter say they no longer consider themselves homeless. They have found a home, and this is it. What began as an emergency night shelter could now be more accurately described as supported housing for women, due to changes in the operations and the community built by residents and staff. Now, that housing and that community are in jeopardy.

Cowichan women's shelter
Suzanne Robinson, seated, and Amy have found a home in the Cowichan Women Against Violence Society shelter. Photo by David Minkow/The Discourse

The current property belongs to the Cowichan Valley School District, which intends to build the new Cowichan Secondary School at that location. CWAV executive director Jan Bate says the school district notified the society a few months ago that their lease would be up at the end of August in order for construction to begin. The school district denied a request for an extension, she says. 

“The board of education for the Cowichan Valley School District hopes that a new location for the women’s shelter can be found quickly so that the women can continue to be supported without any interruption in their program,” said board chair Candace Spilsbury in an email to The Discourse. She said that the board previously extended the society’s short-term lease several times, always with the understanding that the agreement would end when construction of the school began. “They have been good tenants,” Spilsbury added. 

‘A godsend’

Robinson moved to Victoria, B.C. as a teenager and has lived in the Cowichan region for eight years. She says she was “down to skin and bones” from two months of trying to survive on the street after the van she was living in was towed away for illegal parking. Some nights she would sleep at the Warmland House shelter, Robinson says, but if she missed the cutoff time she would wander the streets until dawn, freezing cold. 

Since moving into the women’s shelter, Robinson has gained back 30 pounds. That’s thanks to meals provided by staff as well as having a warm bed to sleep in without the worry of being woken up by the police in the morning and being told to move along, she says.

“It’s really helped me. This place has been a godsend,” Robinson says. “It couldn’t have come at a better time in my life.”

Stigma hampers housing search

All summer, CWAV staff have been in a mad scramble to find a new location for the shelter. Local elected officials, the Cowichan Housing Association and community members have made numerous suggestions, Bate says, but as of Monday, there was just one “warm lead” and a couple of places that have yet to say yes or no.

“We’ve tracked down more than 40 leads in the community,” she says. “It’s just that we haven’t found a place, so that’s why we’re here in the final hour, still looking.”

It’s hard enough to find any rental in the current tight housing market, let alone a landlord willing to give a lease to a women’s homeless shelter, says shelter manager Adria Borghesan. Even though she tries to explain to prospective landlords that the women at the shelter don’t consider themselves homeless anymore, she says that the “bad name” associated with homelessness is a barrier.

“Some landlords won’t even open the door to let us see it,” Borghesan says. 

Shelter manager Adria Borghesan, with the Cowichan Women Against Violence Society
Manager Adria Borghesan shows off new private spaces for women in the shelter, October 2020. Photo by David Minkow/The Discourse

The shelter’s maximum capacity right now is eight clients, due to COVID restrictions for the current space. But Borghesan says that there is enough staffing to serve 15 women, so she hopes that a new shelter site will be found that can house that many. She says that there are 25 women on the waiting list for a spot at the shelter and that not a day goes by when she doesn’t get a call from bylaw officers, hospital staff or social workers looking to place a local woman in need of temporary lodging. 

Buying a property is a long-term goal for the society, but Bate says that unfortunately it’s currently not an option. She explains that BC Housing pays for staffing, food and other supplies at the shelter, but doesn’t cover leasing costs and has not budgeted for a capital purchase. She says that the shelter will lobby BC Housing for funding for a permanent location in the future.

‘I consider it my home now’

When given a chance, Borghesan says she tries to make the case to landlords that the women’s shelter won’t be a disruptive tenant. This is in part due to the shelter’s current configuration, she explains.

Started as a drop-in night shelter in December 2018, the shelter is now open all day and night and has private sleep cubicles for a set group of eight women. This came about due to the COVID pandemic, which caused the shelter to close in March 2020. A month later, the shelter reopened as a tenting site in the middle of a parking lot, and it was accessible around the clock to the shelter’s clients. That policy continued when the indoor shelter reopened in October 2020, with COVID restrictions limiting the capacity to eight women in divided sleeping spaces.  

Related story: Inside newly reopened shelter, women get a space of their own

Borghesan says that having 24-7 access to the shelter’s facilities has been a big, positive change. The women no longer have to worry about where they can go during inclement weather and can shower, use the bathroom and sleep whenever they want. 

“Everyone feels like they’re housed,” she says. “In terms of interventions from the RCMP and disciplinary stuff, it’s gone down to nothing because we’re not kicking people out every morning.”

cwav shelter
Leona Head sits outside the current shelter location. Photo by David Minkow/The Discourse

​​Leona Head, age 44, started staying at the women’s shelter last summer when it was the tenting site. She says that the tents in the asphalt parking lot would get uncomfortably hot during the day, which is when many of the women would try to sleep. Even so, she says it was a welcome relief from being homeless on the streets of Duncan for the previous year and a half. 

“It’s been a blessing for me,” says Head, who grew up in Ladysmith. “I consider it my home now. It’s a good feeling. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to feel that.”

Head says she spends much of her day at the shelter because it’s a safe place to be. She reports that being at the shelter is helping her make better life choices and to “just be a better person all around.” She tears up while expressing her appreciation for the shelter staff.

“Seeing these workers doing their job and getting to know them and seeing how hard they work at keeping this to feel like a home for the girls that are here, it’s a good feeling,” Head says. “They’ve also inspired me as well to keep on keeping on to do better for myself.”

Location search causes stress

Unfortunately, it’s quite possible that Head and the seven other women at the shelter will soon have to find their own temporary lodging, or go without. According to Bate, even if a suitable location is found before the end of the month, it might not be ready for the women to move in on Sept. 1.

“We’re still hopeful that something will manifest,” Bate says. “But we may well be having to turn the women out onto the street without housing, hopefully only for a short period of time.”

She says that the lack of success so far in finding a new home for the shelter is “heartbreaking.” According to Bate, she and her staff have lost a lot of sleep this summer because they have been so worried about what will happen to their clients if they aren’t able to find a new location soon.

Bate notes that Borghesan and the rest of the shelter staff are funded through the end of September to provide outreach support. Though she may need new work in October, Borghesan says that has taken a backseat to the all-consuming task of finding a new shelter site.

The residents are getting increasingly anxious as the end of the current lease approaches, too, Borghesan says

“We had two [non-fatal] overdoses last week just because tensions are so high,” she says. “They don’t want to go anywhere else. This is their home.”

For Robinson, when she first arrived at the shelter nine months ago, she says it felt like moving in with strangers. She says that the women have grown quite close and that she and her new friends have been scheming ways to give back to the community, through things such as teaching crafts or starting a thrift store. 

“We’re like a family,” Robinson says. “We want to stay together. We want this to keep going.”

CWAV invites anyone with leads on a shelter site to get in touch. [end]

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