After more than a decade of planning, a $9-million housing complex for women and children leaving domestic violence opened in Port Alberni on Friday, Nov. 17.
The new housing development is named Wiiksahiqu?il (week-sha-hee-cu-ith), a Nuu-chah-nulth word that loosely translates to “Safe Place.”
Hupacasath First Nation health director Vanessa Charlong and Tseshaht Elected Chief Councillor Wahmeesh (Ken Watts) both talked about the need for second-stage housing in the Alberni Valley. Wahmeesh thanked Sage Haven Society for involving First Nations in the development process from the beginning.
“Utilizing a Nuu-chah-nulth name shows that the world is changing,” he said before presenting society members with a piece of artwork depicting a wolf as protector, to hang on the wall in the new building.
The two-storey, wood frame building comprises 22 units with studios, one, two and three bedrooms for women and gender-diverse people leaving violence, including transgender women, Two-Spirit and non-binary people as well as their dependent children. There is office and storage space for Sage Haven Society staff members inside and parking outdoors. The property, which was donated by the City of Port Alberni, has trees lining the front and includes a playground for children to play and a covered gathering area for families to use.
The provincial government through BC Housing paid $8.6 million, the City of Port Alberni donated the land and the rest was fundraised. These homes are part of the Building BC: Women’s Transition Housing Fund.
Residents at Wiiksahiqu?il will pay either 30 percent of their income for rent or, for those receiving income or disability assistance, the provincial shelter rate.
“Everyone deserves a safe place to call home and to be able to live a life free of violence, and I know these 22 homes will change the lives of their residents,” Mid Island-Pacific Rim MLA Josie Osborne said.
Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns called the opening “an historic moment,” and congratulated the community for welcoming the project.
Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions said witnessing the opening of Wiiksahiqu?il is special because she was involved in the committee from the beginning. “This project is one of the first that set us on a path of recognizing how much of an impact we can have in contributing to these (housing) projects through land donation,” she said.
She said second-stage housing “has been a gap in our system for far too long,” which is why she advocated to city council during her first term as mayor to get behind this kind of project.
For Sage Haven Society executive director Ellen Frood, the official opening held Friday, Nov. 17 was the culmination of seven years of advocating for this housing. Frood arrived in the Alberni Valley in 2016 and said the society, known then as ACAWS, had already been talking about second-stage housing for 10 years.
“For the last seven years I have followed in the footsteps of others who called for second-stage housing for women and children of the Alberni Valley,” Frood said. She recalled a moment in 2018 when someone from BC Housing called her and suggested she go to the legislature in Victoria the next day. She did, and was surprised to hear that Port Alberni would receive funding for a 22-unit second-stage housing project—14 more units than she was expecting.
City councillor Debbie Haggard, who MC’d Friday’s event, credited Frood’s tenacity with bringing the project to fruition. “She came to council almost five years ago with a vision and she has not wavered from that vision,” Haggard said.
Sage Haven already has a transition house for women and children fleeing violence, but the maximum stay is 30 days. It’s not enough, says Frood. “That’s when they’re coming to us in crisis, and some come with only the clothes on their back,” she said.
Many have nowhere to go after the 30 days. “The next step from that is what we call this, which is second-stage housing. Second-stage housing would be six to 18 months that people would stay. And in that period of time we’ll work with them doing educational work. It could be budgeting or financial literacy, something on self-esteem,” Frood explained. Practical skills such as cooking, and cultural teachings could be included, as well as counselling services. “All sorts of things to help build a pathway. It’s really helping people build their future.
“We have a little tagline that we use, which is ‘understanding the past and building futures.’ I really think that this place is all about building futures for people.”
Families will begin moving into Wiiksahiqu?il in the next few weeks.