Occupants of an unofficial “shelter” set up in a former retail space in Port Alberni’s uptown were forced to vacate the building in late December.
On Dec. 29, the Port Alberni Fire Department (PAFD) ordered that the property at 2976 Third Avenue (also known as the former CJAV building) had to be vacated due to its unsafe condition.
The building is owned by Randy Brown, who also owns the Wintergreen Apartments on Fourth Avenue and the “Rack and Rally” squash and billiards club on Third Avenue. Brown has come under fire from the city recently for setting up a number of trailers at the Wintergreen Apartments as shelters for the community’s homeless.
The former CJAV building—which includes a residential space upstairs and a commercial space downstairs—had been vacated back in 2018 after it was determined to be “unfit for occupation” by the City of Port Alberni. However, a “number of issues” were brought to the attention of the fire department back in mid-December of 2020.
“We went into the building after receiving a report that someone was living upstairs,” said PAFD Chief Mike Owens. “When we went inside, we discovered extensive renovations that gave us cause for concern.”
Owens said that several load-bearing walls and support posts had been removed, making the building structurally unsound.
Another inspection took place on Dec. 29, at which point city officials discovered that Brown had placed a number of people inside the ground-level room downstairs, which was formerly a tattoo shop.
“In addition to the building construction issues, it did not have proper fire safety equipment,” said Owens.
During this inspection on Dec. 29, the fire department ordered that the building be vacated due to its unsafe condition. The city’s bylaw services department, RCMP and Canadian Mental Health Association were also on site to assist with the coordination of providing alternate emergency shelter for some of the individuals who were occupying the building and being displaced as a result of the order.
Brown said he had chosen the location because the “Do Not Occupy” order placed in 2018 did not apply to the downstairs room.
“My plan was to put 12 futons in there and set it up with some COVID separation and have a place where we could take people off the street,” said Brown. “I figured I’ve got that space sitting there, I might as well use it.”
Brown was charging rent for the space. Between Dec. 24 and Dec. 29, there were 16 people living in the downstairs area, including a full-time manager. Brown said city officials came in on the evening of Dec. 29 “without any warning or any calls” to shut the “shelter” down.
Between the former CJAV building and the Wintergreen Apartments, Brown said he has been receiving dozens of tickets from the city’s bylaw department.
“I’ll take the tickets,” said Brown. “Housing these people is more important than a thousand dollars’ worth of tickets.”
Owens said that the previous “Do Not Occupy” order had not applied to the downstairs room because it was being used as a commercial space, not a residential space.
“The tattoo shop that was downstairs was allowed to continue in that capacity at that time,” said Owens. “It was designed to be a commercial occupancy, not multiple people sleeping downstairs. The proper fire protection systems were not set up. In addition, all those walls and support beams have been moved upstairs—that would obviously affect the residence downstairs, as well.”
Brown said he was aware of this concern and had hired Brad West of McGill Engineering with the intention of starting improvements on the upstairs space. However, this work was shut down by Port Alberni’s bylaw department because Brown did not have the proper permits.
The building at 2976 Third Avenue has since been boarded up and secured by the PAFD to prevent re-entry.