A community group is petitioning to have Port Alberni’s former shelter building re-open to house people camping in a growing tent city in front of the current Our Home on Eighth shelter. The tents have been erected as part of a protest that former B.C. election candidate Graham Hughes initiated prior to the Oct. 24 election.
Hughes has camped out in front of Port Alberni’s present shelter for more than 10 days, except for the time he spent in jail on Friday, Oct. 30. Hughes was detained after entering the shelter and asking for a bed, then refusing to leave when he was told no.
Hughes and others are asking for a transitional action plan for the homeless members sleeping in tents in front of the shelter. Hughes said the housing would be temporary, “not…a new service model but to find an immediate way to house people.”
Lisa George, a community healthcare service provider in Port Alberni, has been acting as a frontline volunteer for the tent city participants. She says she has the experience to run a transitional program so that hard-to-house clients would be supervised.
The PA Shelter Society still owns the former shelter building and uses it for emergency beds in the winter, executive director Wes Hewitt said. “It has been last year and this year. There are 12 overflow beds used in that building. We fill (Our Home on Eighth shelter) first. When this site is full we overflow into (the previous) one.”
Last year the shelter society “came close” to filling the new shelter facility, so the society negotiated with BC Housing for the dozen overflow beds. “We never filled (the overflow) to capacity.”
The building is not being used for COVID-19 beds, as some rumours would suggest. “There were discussions but nothing ever came of it,” Hewitt said.
The former building, which had space for 48 beds at one time, was closed when Our Home on Eighth opened in March 2019. Hewitt said the shelter society’s long-term plans are to tear the building down and build a new seniors’ facility.
George said if the former shelter building isn’t available then she hopes some other building in town would be made available: a church, old school, community hall, etc. “There’s lots of sites available around town” where the hard-to-house could find shelter in winter, she said.
Port Alberni mayor Sharie Minions indicated in a social media post that she would be agreeable to some sort of temporary shelter opening to help move people out of tents and indoors. George said that remains the biggest problem at the moment.
“The protest Graham Hughes started was originally to address how the shelter was being run,” George said. “That part’s been covered (with a review pending). Let’s face it, that’s a government body—how long is that going to take? What happens with the people sleeping on the ground in front of the shelter?”
The tent city accompanying Hughes’ protest in front of Our Home on Eighth started Oct. 23 and as of Nov. 2 had grown to 14 tents, a large cover and a propane firepit relocated to the edge of an old cement helipad next to the shelter. Some of the residents moved to tents because they didn’t want to live with the rules of the multi-service shelter. Others are living in tents because they aren’t permitted inside the shelter and have nowhere else to go.
“Eighty percent of the people in tents can’t access the shelter,” George said. “Some are on the banned list, some are by choice.”
Creating a transitional housing plan for the tent city residents “is an opportunity to get some talking happening,” she added.