Rain from a southeasterly storm is whipping sideways as Tim Sutherland Sr. sits at a picnic table at Harbour Quay, the full fury of the storm at bay behind plexiglass barriers for the moment. Despite the weather, Sutherland Sr. smiles.
“I can say it’s a beautiful morning because my son finally has a roof over his head,” he says.
His son, Tim Sutherland Jr., has been living in a trailer beside Randy Brown’s Wintergreen Apartments on Fourth Avenue for nearly a month. Before that, the 35-year-old Ahousaht First Nation member had been part of the tent city outside the Our Home on Eighth shelter.
Life hasn’t been easy for either father or son. Sutherland Jr. has been living on his own or on the streets for several years now. He deals with both mental and physical challenges, and he uses illicit drugs. Getting him mental health help that he will accept has been difficult. He cannot live at home with his father, who lives in a seniors’ complex, and all Sutherland Jr. wants is a place of his own.
That hasn’t been an easy request. Sutherland Jr. used to live in an apartment at the Wintergreen, and was at the Carlson Building when residents were evicted so the new owner could renovate. He hasn’t received a call yet to go back there.
“He thrives to be independent. He wants to have his own place. There’s been a lot of false hopes for my son,” Sutherland Sr. said. He and Sutherland Jr.’s siblings and other family members look out for him as best as they can, searching the streets for him and buying him meals when they find him.
“The whole system seems to be against these people who are out on the street.”
A month ago, Brown offered him one of the trailers he brought onto his property in a move, he says, to give the hard-t0-house somewhere to get out of the rain. Brown plans to have as many as 15 trailers or motorhomes on his property, all hooked into power from the apartment and to the city’s sewer line.
None of it is legal: he has received numerous tickets for contravening zoning bylaws, building and fire codes. He has been given 30 days by the City of Port Alberni to remove the trailers and complete a long list of remediation to his building.
Sutherland Sr. is under no illusion that the trailer where his son resides with a friend right now is a palace. But it’s warm and it keeps him out of the cold, wet weather. Knowing he is not sleeping rough outdoors eases Sutherland Sr.’s mind. “Since he’s been in that trailer it’s the happiest I’ve seen my son in years,” he said.
“Being in the trailer, it’s not about drugs for him. He’s been very clear-eyed. We host conversations both he and I can relate to. I think that place is doing him good—not only him, I’m happier.”
Sutherland Jr. is one of an unknown number of people living in the trailers on Fourth Avenue.
Brad Broadbent moved his small motorhome onto Brown’s property two weeks ago after he was asked to leave the property next door. “This was the only place I could go where bylaw wouldn’t tow my home away from me,” he said. “Bylaw was threatening to take my home away.”
Broadbent said he has lived in the motorhome for four or five months now. He has parked it across the alley or in the lot next to Brown’s property, “just wherever I could put it that wasn’t on the street. I was playing the shell game, moving it wherever I can.”
Broadbent said he began living in the motorhome “because rent is too expensive and I can’t afford it. I’m a single guy, I work part time, I can’t really afford an apartment. It just seemed right to live in the motorhome. It’s a place to live; I can’t get kicked out of it.”
“(Randy’s) giving me a place where I’m safe. I can leave my motorhome knowing it’s going to be here when I get back, it’s not going to get towed on me. I can’t afford the fees if it gets towed—I would lose everything.”
He said he has a couple of friends who spend nights with him as well, to get out of the weather. “It’s all we’ve got. A lot of my friends are homeless and they need somewhere to be.”
The city is working with BC Housing to find spots for people who will be displaced if the trailers are taken away. Officials are calling on BC Housing to open up more emergency housing for the city’s growing homeless population.
“The people who live at this site are at the forefront of our thoughts while we take this action,” Mayor Sharie Minions posted on her Facebook page. “I personally believe that every person should have access to safe, accessible and affordable housing. While this housing may be affordable, it certainly does not meet the standard for safety,” she wrote. “And while we never want to see people displaced from existing low barrier housing, we cannot knowingly allow people to live where clear and imminent fire and safety risk exists.
“Regardless of personal situation, no person in our community should ever have to live in these conditions. Property owners have a responsibility to maintain and properly manage their buildings to not get to this point. The condition of this property is simply unacceptable in our community.”
Sutherland Sr. was not immediately aware the city had issued a remediation order on Brown’s property that includes removing the trailers within 30 days. “Where can they move them to?” he asked. He worries that the 30-day deadline is impossible for Brown to get the work done, or to find housing for people like his son.
“One month is right in the heart of Christmas. Not a very good Christmas if it happens then.”
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