A BC Housing review of the Port Alberni Shelter Society offers 10 recommendations on how the shelter can better serve the city’s homeless population.
BC Housing hired a consultant in November 2020 to conduct an arm’s-length review of PASS, which operates a 23-bed emergency shelter, 30 supportive housing units and 27 community expansion (i.e. emergency cold weather) beds in both Our Home on Eighth shelter and the old facility across the street. The shelter society also operates other facilities, such as the overdose prevention site on Third Avenue, but those are funded separately and not under the BC Housing umbrella.
The consultant interviewed 26 people by telephone, including service providers and community partners, former PASS clients and staff, concerned community members, PASS representatives and “relevant” BC Housing staff. Input from these interviews “shaped the observations and recommendations presented,” according to the consultant’s report.
Recommendations include reviewing service restriction and eviction procedures, putting a time limit on evictions and developing more succinct guidelines on how restrictions are implemented; working with BC Housing to develop more accessible and client-centred complaint and appeal processes for restrictions and evictions, including options for clients who are unable to read or write.
Some recommendations were made to increase safety of women in co-ed facilities as well as develop more clear strategies to welcome Indigenous people to use shelter and housing services. The shelter society notes that 19 percent of their regular clientele are Indigenous and that they have a “strong and ongoing” relationship with the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council; the consultant recommended that PASS embed local First Nations culture at its facilities through building stronger relationships and improving Indigenous representation in the organization.
The consultant felt PASS needs to provide “more in-depth and effective training and upgrading to their staff and management…to be more client-centred, work with sensitivity and be trauma-informed,” to include training in mental health-related topics including de-escalation and violence prevention, and cultural safety for Indigenous clients.
The consultant recommended an immediate review by PASS, and that BC Housing should consider establishing a community advisory committee in Port Alberni with oversight and advisory functions. One of the main functions of this committee would be to monitor service provision to people experiencing homelessness in the community, and it should include representation from the city, Indigenous leadership and Island Health.
The report also recommends development of an alternate shelter or housing site in Port Alberni under a different service provider, offering “strong” mental health and substance use supports developed collaboratively with Indigenous representatives. This was one of the issues put forward by those protesting practices at the shelter with a temporary “tent city” last October.
All 10 recommendations in the report were accepted by BC Housing and a number of recommendations are already being acted on, BC Housing stated in a news release.
The review came about after numerous complaints came to light during a “tent city” protest outside the Our Home on Eighth shelter last October. BC Housing agreed to a review after Mayor Sharie Minions spoke with protest leaders and said an investigation was needed to look into allegations brought forward by protest organizer Graham Hughes and others.
BC Housing only released the executive summary and key recommendations to the report on March 18, 2021, citing privacy as the reason the full report was not released.
Going forward, BC Housing will continue to work with the PASS board to ensure the recommendations are implemented.
Port Alberni Shelter Society executive director Wes Hewitt referred the AV News to a statement published on the PASS website for response.
The shelter society’s four-page statement notes there is “room for improvement” and welcomes practical recommendations, but disagreed on some points. The society noted the third-party consultant’s report “does not sufficiently acknowledge the impact that COVID-19 and public health/ physical distancing measures have had on how PASS has been able to provide service over the past year. The report also omits the broader community context of increased pressure for shelter and housing Port Alberni, in part due to the closure of sub-standard housing elsewhere in the community.”
The society also disagreed with the consultant’s decision not to interview current clients for the review, saying it excluded a “key audience that uses our services and interacts with our staff every day.”
The shelter society agreed with the consultant that more mental health services are needed in Port Alberni, and that PASS is unable to provide such support without help. Staffing has been challenging, especially in the past year, the society acknowledged, expressing a willingness to work with BC Housing on ways to improve staffing and facilities—especially to improve safety for women in the co-ed emergency dormitories.
The PASS board of directors also said they support the shelter’s executive director and senior leadership. Some people interviewed for the BC Housing report called for a change in leadership.
Hughes in a statement said he felt vindicated at the results. “The 10 recommendations and 11 actions presented within their summary show that my concerns, and the concerns of other participants in the investigation, were true and justified and again, I thank city council and Mayor Minions for trusting in those of us who were willing to put our credibility on the line to see this investigation take place.
“Without the city’s request for this investigation, it is unlikely it would have taken place.”