The Lady Minto Hospital Foundation hopes to reduce gaping hospital staffing holes on Salt Spring Island by purchasing the Seabreeze Inne and transforming its existing 28 rooms into 14 one-bedroom apartments for its personnel.
But what would happen to an estimated 20 individuals living at the motel on Ganges hill — many who were officially homeless before being accommodated there — is a burning question that has charred what would otherwise be a good news story.
LMHF executive director Roberta Martell said the foundation was made aware that the Seabreeze Inne was for sale and that Salt Spring Community Services was trying to acquire it with assistance from BC Housing. Martell said it was also known that if that purchase was not completed that other parties interested in operating it strictly as a motel could buy it.
“And so we wanted to be next in line to try and keep that as a community housing asset, because it’s one of the few facilities that can become a multi-use residential building,” she told the Driftwood last week.
Martell said LMHF has offered to purchase the property from 1035525 B.C. LTD. for $4 million, with a number of subject-to conditions still to be fulfilled, including approval of the proposal by the foundation’s membership, commercial building and septic inspections, among others.
The membership must approve pulling up to $2.5 million out of the foundation’s endowment fund and to secure another $2.8 million for the rest of the purchase price and the required renovation costs.
“If nothing throws us off that track, then we will be coming to the members within probably the next three or four weeks, with a formal request through a special resolution to take that money from the endowment,” Martell said last week.
To what extent the foundation should be involved in helping rehouse the current Seabreeze residents is a question Martell and her board has considered.
“We’re working with BC Housing, we’re meeting with Community Services, to try and figure out what role we can play in helping them meet their clients’ needs.”
Martell points out that Community Services and BC Housing are the two organizations on Salt Spring with responsibility for housing low-income people, and that BC Housing only had an agreement with the Seabreeze to rent rooms for individuals until the end of this year. Government financial documents show that BC Housing paid $89,100 to the Seabreeze Inne during the fiscal year ending March 31, 2021.
No formal notice to vacate has been given to residents, but some current Seabreeze residents who spoke with the Driftwood on Saturday expressed anxiety about losing their homes. One resident is battling liver cancer and another has Parkinson’s disease. Some receive disability payments and others are part of the island’s workforce.
For Nick Jewell, having secure housing has been life-changing. After impressing motel management with how he undertook some caretaking duties there, Jewell was recommended for an evening cleaning job at Thrifty Foods. Jewell had previously camped on the island in his five years here.
“You don’t ever realize what you’re doing until someone puts you up in a place and you can figure it out,” said Jewell.
A woman named Deb, who has deep roots on the island, experienced homelessness while undergoing chemotherapy in Victoria, and was also severely impacted by a traumatic injury on Salt Spring. She said nursing staff insisted she needed somewhere warm and dry to live and she has lived at the Seabreeze for about a year.
“This place has saved me,” she said about the Seabreeze room, where her 19-year-old cat Dexter lives with her and which she has beautifully furnished and decorated. “It has actually saved me.”
Julia Lypian is a young woman who was living in a mouldy tent, which aggravated her asthma condition, before being given a place at the Seabreeze.
Having a home has provided much-needed stability, gives her space to do her artwork, have a normal social life and improves her ability to be employed.
She wonders if it doesn’t make more economic sense for the hospital foundation to do a new build rather than renovating the motel, which was built in 1983.
Community Services executive director Rob Grant is still hoping that BC Housing could be convinced to purchase the Seabreeze so that current residents can remain and even more low-income earners can be housed there. (See his Viewpoint piece in this issue of the paper.)
But Martell said providing housing for hospital staff has become an obvious critical need for the foundation to address.
“There’s 31 positions vacant at the hospital currently,” she said. “And that’s putting severe pressure on the existing staff to try and keep up when they don’t have as many co-workers as they need. Shifts are going vacant, or people are working longer than they should.”
Other communities’ hospital foundations are also focusing on housing, said Martell.
The foundation has had a great response to its online housing portal launched last month, and rents a house near the hospital to service as a “landing pad” for new staff as they try to find permanent housing. The portal allows Salt Spring property owners to list a rental opportunity that only health-care staff can access.
Lypian said she doesn’t like how the situation seems to have pitted two groups in need of housing against each other.
“There’s definitely more that we could do . . . There could be more creativity to find solutions for us both.”