Proposed wellness centre prompts consideration to close Quamichan School campus

The school board is concerned that the wellness centre might draw more visible drug use to area.

The Cowichan Valley School District (SD79) is considering limiting student movement off of Quamichan School property in response to parental concerns over open drug use and visible homelessness, which have been heightened by the proposal to build a wellness centre in the neighbourhood.

On Sept. 28, the Cowichan Valley School Board passed a motion to consider designating the North Cowichan middle school a closed campus “until a resolution of the unsafe issues in the York/Beverly corridor are resolved,” according to an SD79 spokesperson.

A closed campus means that students would not be free to roam on and off the property during the school day, though the specific details are yet to be determined. The school board will consult with RCMP and the school community on options before making a decision, says SD79 board chair Candace Spilsbury. 

“The concerns we have are around the homelessness, drug issues, the visibility of the use of those drugs, the visibility of people on the streets [who are] lying on the streets, the sort of social disorder that we have observed,” Spilsbury says.

The motion came two weeks after crowds gathered at Quamichan School to protest the location of Island Health’s planned wellness and recovery centre. Spilsbury is part of the Cowichan Leadership Group, which has advocated for the services associated with the wellness centre. The school board, however, has officially opposed the planned location, at 5878 York Rd., because of the number of students who use that area.

What’s up with the wellness centre?

The wellness and recovery centre will host the region’s overdose prevention site – currently located on Trunk Road in Duncan. But Island Health says overdose prevention will use just a quarter of the new space. It will also offer primary medical care, outreach, case management and treatment.

The neighbourhood is already a hub for people experiencing homelessness and people who use drugs. The wellness centre would be kitty corner to the Warmland House shelter, operated by the Cowichan Valley branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association. It would also be across the street from Phoenix Wellness Clinic, which treats opioid use disorder.

A great deal of the opposition to the centre has focused on its proximity to schools. The site is within a few hundred metres of Cowichan Secondary School, Alexander Elementary School, Duncan Christian School and Quamichan School.

The Discourse asked for your questions about the wellness centre. Here’s what we heard. Your questions guided this story, and will continue to guide our investigation.

candace spilsbury Cowichan valley school district
Candace Spilsbury is the chair of the Cowichan Valley School District board. (Photo submitted by Candace Spilsbury)

Closing campus

Spilsbury says the decision to close campus will depend on a safety audit from the RCMP, the results of a parent and community survey to seek feedback on alternate options and the results of a discussion between the superintendent and Quamichan School administration.

Other schools in the area aren’t as much of a concern, Spilsbury says. Elementary school students don’t leave campus unaccompanied, high school students typically access restaurants on the opposite side of the road and Duncan Christian School students need a permission slip from home to be able to leave campus.

Spilsbury says the school board may consider a similar system for Quamichan, where parents can give advance permission for students to leave campus.

Board worries stem from current issues

Safety concerns held by the board and parents come from historic issues that have taken place in the York/Beverly corridor, Spilsbury says.

When asked if there are any reported incidents of students being harmed, she says there aren’t any to her knowledge. Spilsbury notes, however, that there could have been incidents that never came to the board’s attention.

“What we’re going on is our observations and the verbal reporting or letters in writing that we’ve received,” Spilsbury says.

She also says there is concern that the new wellness centre would draw more people who use drugs to the area.

The Warmland House shelter, too, was built on the premise that it would support people who need it and give them somewhere to be besides on the streets, Spilsbury says. “And it worked for a number of years but now the context and the numbers of people in need have increased.” With existing services unable to meet demand, more people are now visibly struggling on the streets in that neighbourhood. 

The evidence on neighbourhood impacts of an overdose prevention site is mixed, and may be determined by what supports are put in place. According to an analysis of Canadian and international evidence by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, overdose prevention sites have “an overall positive impact on the communities where these facilities are located.” Studies have shown decreases in public drug consumption and discarded needles, and no increase in crime. The Government of Canada, citing Health Canada, says that when properly established, these sites reduce public drug use and discarded drug equipment.  

What supports will be in place?

In an email to The Discourse, Island Health says “the safety and security of individuals – particularly children and youth – is a top priority.” The health authority says security services will be provided in partnership with the local government and that needle pickup will be done around the centre.

“Our organization recognizes the impacts that the societal challenges of the opioid crisis, poverty, mental health, substance use and homelessness is having on individuals and communities in the Cowichan Valley,” Island Health says, noting that many people employed with the health authority live in Cowichan and are aware of challenges related to “illegal activity and disruptive behaviours.”

“Balancing the comfort, safety and security of neighbourhoods with the urgent and increasing need for mental health and substance use services is ongoing work,” Island Health says.

wellness centre
The Cowichan Valley School District building. (Photo by Jacqueline Ronson)

An educational opportunity

Spilsbury says she believes teachers want to support everyone in their community, and they understand that those in need of services like Warmland House and the future wellness centre are in a difficult situation. She says she expects teachers would be talking about those issues in a “very supportive way” with students, explaining why people may need that support.

“It’s their understanding that these people are all fathers, brothers, mothers, sisters,” Spilsbury says. “They’re not unknown people to the community and their lives matter.”

She says the teachers always use available resources in the community to support students’ learning. In the past, students and staff have gone to Warmland House to look at the facility and talk with staff. Spilsbury says she can see how collaborating with Island Health on educational tools about the new wellness centre could be helpful.

Spilsbury says Island Health will be creating an advisory committee regarding the centre, which the school board will be part of. However, plans about educational opportunities have not been discussed.

In an emailed statement, Island Health says there are plans to provide education in partnership with the school district but that details are still being worked out.

What’s next?

Spilsbury says the school board is waiting on an RCMP safety audit to determine next steps towards closing the Quamichan School campus. It’s unclear how long that will take. 

After that, consideration would be given to the cost of mitigation strategies such as extra supervisors in the area, fencing around the grounds and needle sweeps, Spilsbury says.

Island Health plans to move ahead with renovations at the wellness centre site, to open mid-2021.

The health authority is “committed to ongoing and structured dialogue in the months and years ahead,” according to an email.

The dialogue process, which includes neighbours of the proposed site and the school community, is expected to get underway this fall, Island Health says. 

“It is our hope that the ensuing months will provide an opportunity for continued conversations about this site and the important services it will deliver,” Island Health says. [end]

Editor’s note, Oct. 8 2020: A reader pointed out that a previous version of this article failed to clearly describe the evidence that overdose prevention sites can benefit the surrounding neighbourhood, and the source for that evidence. We agree the omission was potentially misleading, and have added a sentence to better describe and point to that evidence.

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