Pandemic impacts shelter status

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As it has done in other communities where vulnerable populations gather in large groups, the pandemic crisis has brought the lack of housing and shortage of supports for homeless people into sharper focus on Salt Spring.

Large numbers of people who consistently spend their days in downtown Ganges parks in good weather have already been a source of contention for other community members. With Centennial Park being a prominent gathering place, islanders have reported feeling uncomfortable with the situation, which can include open drinking and uncontrolled dogs. Now with the threat of COVID-19, people who were fed up with such behaviour are now also worried about the potential for a viral outbreak.

Island resident Brenda Deroos sent her concerns to multiple local agencies, including the Capital Regional District and the Islands Trust, after she had an unsettling experience when trying to pick up take-out food near Centennial Park earlier this month.

“I tried to walk through the park to get my noodles, but quickly realized that wasn’t a great idea,” Deroos wrote in her letter, which is filed under the Local Trust Committee’s April 28 meeting correspondence. “There were more than 30 unsavoury characters, and more than six dogs in the park. The people were drinking alcohol, smoking and swearing. The dogs were off leash, chasing each other throughout the park. I felt intimidated, vulnerable and unsafe. Of course, there was no social isolating.” 

Salt Spring CRD director Gary Holman said the local government branch is doing what it can with increased presence of bylaw enforcement officers and the maintenance staff who keep the parks clean. The CRD has also requested the RCMP patrol the area more frequently. 

The fact that many people have nowhere else to go is a deeper issue, though, and one that will be challenging to solve.

“Our society has let these people down, in my view,” said Holman. “Housing is a fundamental entitlement. If you live in Canada, you should find a way to provide housing, and we’re not doing that. On the other hand, there are rules around respect and taking care of public spaces and taking care of one another — and those rules apply to everyone, as well.”

Holman pointed out that although problems with downtown parks and Centennial Park in particular have been going on for years, the pandemic crisis has exacerbated the situation. Other people aren’t using Centennial Park much with the closure of the playground and the Saturday Market in the Park cancelled for now, which means there is more room for the large gatherings recently seen there.

Another contributing factor may be the loss of overnight shelter space at Salt Spring Community Services, which had to reduce its 30-mat capacity to just seven in order to keep the appropriate distance between people. The organization has rented out six rooms at the Seabreeze Inne to house some of its clients who would be most vulnerable to the virus, whether due to age, chronic health conditions or respiratory issues. 

There is currently a waiting list for these rooms so the organization is considering whether clients could share rooms in some cases.

Community Services is meanwhile working to build more shelter capacity, having purchased a property and two-storey house adjacent to its existing home site. Renovations are currently underway, but are hampered by lack of funding. Executive director Rob Grant said the organization has been able to find $65,000 for the project thanks to local donors, including a healthy contribution collected by the island’s faith community. They will need another $50,000 to finish it off. 

Community Services and Holman have been trying to get that support from BC Housing, but so far the provincial agency has been noncommittal.

“We’re getting good funding to do a lot at Community Services and the notable exception is BC Housing. So we’d really like to get them to the table,” Grant said.

With funding in place, the new shelter could be ready in three to four weeks and would offer at least double the current building’s capacity. Grant said the organization would direct resources to offer daytime hang-out space at the facility as long as COVID distancing rules apply. Having that space could bring some relief to the Centennial Park situation. Another strategy would be have spaces where vulnerable people could still have social groups, but in smaller cohorts of up to 10 people each rather than a bigger gathering.

“Right now the library is closed, the pool is closed. We just want to do whatever we can to offer an alternative while there is a need for people to be dispersed,” Grant said.

Holman reported the shelter issue has been one of the topics of discussion in the biweekly COVID-19 meetings being coordinated by the CRD emergency program. CRD Regional Housing staff have now started a task force specific to Salt Spring since housing is a critical component of health and safety. Access to facilities for personal hygiene is a related need.

“We’re starting to get some traction [from BC Housing], but I’m frustrated about the lack of resources for a problem that has been obvious for weeks,” Holman said.

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