Against the odds, Cowichan Valley women’s shelter finds a permanent home

The new Charlotte’s Place, slated to open in March 2023, will keep twice as many women off the streets.

The long, bumpy journey to find a permanent home for the Charlotte’s Place women’s shelter is finally over. After having to make do with a converted concession stand, a tenting site in the middle of a parking lot and precarious limited-term rental leases, the Cowichan Women Against Violence Society (CWAV) recently finalized the purchase of a building in Duncan to shelter women experiencing homelessness. 

“We’ve worked hard despite the tiny, old concession stand, COVID and the tenting sites, reduced capacity, funding and building challenges, cooking for 15 women with nothing but a hot plate and electric fry pan and using a garden hose as a shower,” says shelter manager Adria Borghesan. “We have overcome so much and to finally [be able to] move to a permanent space makes me so happy.”

For $1.2 million, half of which came from an anonymous donor, CWAV now owns a stand-alone building at 1081 Canada Ave. that will become the new Charlotte’s Place next March once renovations are completed. It will allow the shelter to accommodate 24 women, up from 12-to-15 women at the current location, says CWAV executive director Jan Bate. The shelter is currently turning women away on a daily basis.

So much of the shelter’s story “is about making do with whatever we have and facing whatever obstacles and challenges we find ourselves in,” says Borghesan, who has been with the shelter since its inception in December 2018.

‘Like a fairy tale coming true’

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A year ago, the women’s shelter was renamed Charlotte’s Place after one of the team leads, Charlotte Racette. According to Bate, Racette is unflappable, grounded and generous, and thus “personifies the kind of support that women should have who go to that shelter.”

A woman wearing a blue and red shirt smiles.
Charlotte’s Place is named for Charlotte Racette, a team lead at the women’s shelter. Photo by David Minkow/The Discourse

Initially Racette declined the honour, but after repeated requests from staff and clients, she acquiesced. She says that she is very humbled to be recognized in this way. “To this day, it still means so much that I have been thought of as sort of the person to help have Charlotte’s Place be and become what it is today.”

Racette says that finally securing a permanent home after so many changes and uncertainty is “almost like a fairy tale coming true.”

“It’s just a sense of security. And not just the women living there but for staff as well,” Racette says. “It will be our last move.” 

Leona Head, 45, has been staying at the shelter for two years, first arriving when it was a tenting site. Head says she appreciates having a safe place to come back to each night. “I feel safe when I’m here.”

A woman offers a slight smile
Leona Head has been staying at the women’s shelter, in its various incarnations, for two years. Photo by David Minkow/The Discourse

Head expects that she will still require the support of Charlotte’s Place when it moves to its permanent home next year. And she anticipates that it will provide an added sense of security. 

“The last two places that we’ve had, it’s felt like home but not really because I always have in the back of my head that we don’t own this place,” she says. “It’s going to be such a great feeling knowing that we permanently have a place.”

Topsy turvy adventure to land a permanent home for women’s shelter 

The women’s shelter has undergone a lot of permutations since it first opened as an overnight drop-in shelter, leasing the blue concessions stand of the old baseball field from the Cowichan Valley School District. There were 15 beds available in one large open room each evening on a first-come, first-serve basis. In the morning, the women had to leave the shelter. 

In the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic first caused the shelter to reduce its capacity by half, and then to close altogether for a short period. This was followed by the creation of a tenting site for women in the Cowichan Community Centre’s overflow parking lot. Although the site wasn’t as private, the women could access their tents 24-7. 

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

The tenting site lasted a little more than five months until the women’s shelter reopened at the converted concession stand, this time as a 24-7 shelter with no drop-in beds. To comply with COVID regulations, CWAV reconfigured the space to have eight beds with partitions. 

But time was ticking for the shelter because the lease with the school district was up at the end of August, 2021 and the district turned down a request for an extension due to plans for the building of the new Cowichan Secondary School. Bate says, “we were under a lot of stress to find a temporary location” until, at the eleventh hour, the shelter signed a one-year lease with Cowichan Tribes to move into a building at the old VIU campus on Cowichan Way.

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

That building required some adjustments, including building makeshift showers and figuring out how to provide three meals a day without a stove, Borghesan says. But the biggest challenge was that it was temporary, and prospects for buying a building in a heated housing market seemed daunting. 

Anonymous donation of $600,000 was a game-changer 

The first sign that finding a permanent home for the women’s shelter would be possible came in late 2021 when CWAV was awarded $344,274 for capital purchases through United Way British Columbia and the Government of Canada’s Reaching Home program. But even with this grant, Bate says that CWAV kept getting outbid, with properties going for well over market value. 

The Reaching Home funds needed to be used by a certain date, and despite an extension to March 31, the society struggled to find a location. CWAV and United Way issued a press release three weeks before the new deadline, stressing the urgency of the situation. 

In response, a lot of calls with leads came in, Bate says. In mid-April, they learned that an anonymous donor had gifted CWAV $600,000 to buy a building. 

“This one gift of $600,000 changed the game,” says Bate, who doesn’t know the identity of the donor. “That was what allowed us to look at a much bigger building and the potential of doubling our impact.”

a woman in red with a big smile
Jan Bate is the executive director of the Cowichan Women Against Violence Society. Photo by David Minkow/The Discourse

CWAV also received $100,000 donations from both the Providence Village Housing Society and the Maunders McNeil Foundation, as well as smaller contributions from some family foundations. It all added up to enough money to compete in the competitive housing market. 

Perfect building in the perfect location

It didn’t take very long for CWAV to find a suitable new home for Charlotte’s Place. The location of the building on Canada Ave. is perfect, Bate says, because there are no immediate residential neighbours and it’s only a 10-minute walk to downtown Duncan.

She says that the design of the building is also perfect for what the shelter needs, although some renovations will be required for the bathrooms and the kitchen. 

On the ground floor, there are 11 rooms, envisioned as private bedrooms, Bate says. The main floor will be able to accommodate 10 beds, in three rooms, for women who are having shorter stays. She envisions being able to shelter 20 women wanting longer stays, with four beds available for emergency situations. There is also an attic floor that may be used for things such as organizing clothing donations.

The shelter’s operations are funded by BC Housing, with an annual budget of $788,000. Bate says that the operations agreement with BC Housing includes a goal of trying to get all clients housing-ready within 100 days.

“What we’ve learned through this pandemic and the impacts on the unhoused people in our community is that people that are street-entrenched need some time with support and a stable roof over their head to get to a place of health and mental health where they can be successful in the next stage of housing, which would probably be supportive housing,” Bate says. 

“Our hope is that by opening up Charlotte’s Place, we will be able to support the most vulnerable women and get them grounded and stabilized and access to medical support and mental health support so that they can be successful within a few months, hopefully, to go into supportive housing.”

What happens next

The new building has commercial tenants who will be moving out at the end of the year. The shelter plans to begin renovations in January, and hopefully open in March, Bate says.

In the meantime, CWAV is in a rezoning process with the City of Duncan in order to allow habitation on the ground floor, Bate says. 

Cowichan Tribes has granted CWAV a one-month extension of its original one-year lease, meaning that the shelter can stay at its current location through the end of September. Because the Quw’utsun Tumuhw decision-making body doesn’t meet in August, the shelter will have to wait until September to find out if the shelter can remain open until the new building is ready, Bate says. 

CWAV is also continuing to raise more financial support for Charlotte’s Place. In the spring, the organization launched a Community Heroes program seeking 101 people willing to donate $20 a month. Thus far, 31 people have become monthly donors, Bate says, adding that CWAV will put out another request for more “heroes” in the fall.

Shelter manager Borghesan says she is overjoyed to be able to have a permanent home for the shelter and to serve more clients.

“It’s a beautiful, bright building where we can thoughtfully design and plan to fully meet the needs of our clients,” she says. “It’s always been a core value of ours to provide services that foster dignity in the women of this community so it will be a true success to create a space where women feel safe and proud to stay. I’m truly excited to have the best opportunity possible to continue this work in our community for many more years to come.” [end]

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