In the fall and winter of 2020 I spent a lot of time writing about the plight of people in Port Alberni without homes, and those who are hard to house due to their circumstances.
Now that the weather is warmer, and conditions are more favourable (a relative term) for people to sleep rough outdoors, the conversation seems to have petered off. People have recently been concerned about keeping the city’s homeless population safe during the record-breaking heat dome in late June: cooling centres were set up and volunteers patrolled the streets with bottles of water, hats and sunblock to hand out.
Volunteer efforts have been monumental. I take my hat off to those with organizations like the Salvation Army, Bread of Life, Quu’asa, ACAWS, ADAPS, Kuu-us Crisis Line Society, Grassroots Homelessness Coalition (apologies for the ones I’ve likely missed) who have sustained people for the past year and a half through the coronavirus pandemic. But all this effort has been crisis management—how long will volunteers be able to sustain the pace that was set out of necessity in March 2020?
There have been a number of affordable housing announcements that will benefit the city in the next few of years, but will do little for the immediate housing crisis.
Now is the time conversations need to ramp up about where people without homes are going to sleep this winter—before the weather gets wet and cold.
City council takes a lot of heat for housing issues, some of which isn’t warranted. Housing isn’t so much a municipal government responsibility as it is provincial and federal. Still, there are things city officials can do and have done to help with a variety of housing issues in Port Alberni. Cultivating a relationship with BC Housing is one: showing they are serious about affordable housing options by donating city land to certain projects is another.
When last October’s protest about the Port Alberni Shelter Society came to a head, the city pushed BC Housing to do a review (The report was released in March 2021). They also pushed to have the “banned” list at the shelter revisited, and more beds opened up at the former shelter site on Eighth Avenue that was under contract for COVID-19 emergency beds.
It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s something.
“We recognize there needs to be an immediate solution while we’re working on this,” Mayor Sharie Minions said.
The community has to meet the city part way, she explained. The city can only advocate for a project if someone else spearheads it. There was talk, for instance, of a need for youth housing. Although city officials have apparently talked with the Alberni Valley Drug and Alcohol Prevention Services (ADAPS), Minions said there hasn’t been enough justification of numbers or push for a facility from any organizations. If there was, the city could look at providing land for supportive youth housing, but they wouldn’t take on a project like that—it’s too complex.
It’s the same with the sleeping pods that opened in Duncan a few months ago. Port Alberni residents thought a similar development would be a better solution than the ragtag RVs that are collecting in a lot behind Wintergreen Apartments on Fourth Avenue.
Council has “had a conversation” about the Duncan project and talked to an organization in town about it, but the concept hasn’t gone anywhere yet.
“It’s not an initiative at this point anyone is tackling,” Minions said.
Watching the efforts last fall of the Grassroots Homelessness Coalition and how many red-taped roadblocks they had to go through to accomplish simple things like warming tents, well, that tells me we’re already running out of time.
We may have a lot of summer left, but the winter homelessness crisis isn’t far off.
Susie Quinn is the Alberni Valley News editor.