The man who organized a protest in front of Port Alberni’s shelter was arrested after entering the building and asking for a shelter bed.
Graham Hughes was taken at 1 a.m. Friday, Oct. 30 from the front of the shelter to the Port Alberni RCMP station half a block away after he entered the shelter, witness Leslie Mitchell said.
“He physically went in the building last night. I don’t know what happened after that because we weren’t allowed in either. We stood outside and watched,” Mitchell said.
“The police came around 4:30 in the morning and threatened the rest of the supporters that were here watching over the camp, and told them they had to take down our big tent and fire pits and take everything away or we were all going to be arrested.”
Mitchell said tenters were told they had to vacate the premises by noon or the police would return. Noon came and went and although people were packing up, the police had not shown up.
The Alberni Valley News has a call in to Port Alberni RCMP for comment.
Hughes was released around 4 p.m. on Friday and returned to a vacant lot beside the shelter. Campers were still in the midst of packing their belongings.
“We started getting wind (late Thursday night) and people’s tents were blowing away in the wind, mine being one of them that got scattered into the backyard of Our Place, where we’ve been banned. I went in and it became one of these things—just stay, and get the arrest done; get a judge involved in this.”
He asked for a shelter bed for the night, but was told no. Police were called and he was escorted off the property and to the police station.
Hughes said he refused to sign his release papers and was set for a bail hearing first thing Friday morning “but that didn’t happen.” He claimed he was charged with mischief and that the charges were dropped.
Hughes has been living in a tent outside the shelter for a week, protesting the way homelessness is dealt with in Port Alberni and particularly through the Port Alberni Shelter Society. He is not homeless himself: he has a home. “In solidarity, I am actually living with these people—I’m not treating people as props. I have a residence. But the thing with this situation is so many people don’t.”
Two campers stood around looking at their tents in front of Our Home on Eighth and said they didn’t know where to go. One man, who didn’t want to give his name, said he had been camping out front of the shelter for the past three days.
“I stayed in there (the shelter) the first night and it was too much like jail. Just the way they were talking to me.
“It was cold out and these guys (protesters) gave me hot chocolate and a doughnut.” He was standing talking to protesters and then he said someone from the shelter told him to leave. This was not verified by shelter staff.
“I was hungry, was I supposed to say no? I said who is going to give me hot chocolate and a doughnut, you guys? You come here and you want to be safe. I didn’t feel safe at all.”
Another woman who has been sleeping in a tent outside the shelter was recently left homeless after a fire in a commercial/ residential building on Argyle Street. She went to the shelter on Oct. 23 looking for a bed. By Oct. 29 she was sleeping outside in a tent someone had given her. She returned to her tent on Friday at noon to take a nap.
Mitchell said “I have no idea” where the displaced protesters will go once they leave the site. She also didn’t know where Hughes was taken after he was escorted to the police station.
An advocate with Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) visited the tent city Thursday night and took down names of people needing a place to stay to add them to a housing registry, Hughes said. “We still have nothing being done for people who still don’t have refuge or options.
“We have to keep asking, because the people we’re asking just aren’t listening.”
“It’s pretty sad,” said Laura Tourangeau, a former employee at the shelter who has supported Hughes at the sit-in. “What these people are going to do is pick up and find somewhere else to camp where they’re not being looked after. They’re not getting appropriate food, they’re not being checked on, they are not getting their meds (medication).”
Tourangeau said protesters were checking in on the campers, medical personnel were coming to the site to look in on them, and with donations from the community they were being fed breakfast, lunch and snacks. “Everything a human being needs to survive.”
Cynthia Dick, Chief councillor for Tseshaht First Nation, arrived at the protest site shortly before noon. “I think what Graham is looking for is transparency and accountability. He’s let me know a bit about his approach so far and I know he’s been trying to reach out to the board and trying to reach out to a number of people: Island Health, BC Housing, John and Wes with no response.
“With something like this, when we’re dealing with our most vulnerable people, that at very minimum there should be communication.”
Dick and Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions have expressed interest in sitting on the shelter society’s board. Minions said previously the city has no authority over the shelter or its board, and she would have to be elected like any other board member to gain a seat. Dick said she and Minions are interested in sitting on the board “so that we can help support such an important service in our community and make sure that these voices are being heard.”