The five sites that will be used as temporary tenting areas for the homeless in the Cowichan region have been identified.
The contentious location in the parking lot of North Cowichan’s Fuller Arena was identified by the municipality last week, and the COVID-19 Vulnerable Population Cowichan Task Force has now said a site on Buller Street in Ladysmith, a city-owned lot on St. Julien Street in Duncan, a site on Government Street known as “The Mound” owned by the Cowichan Tribes, and a location behind the Cowichan Community Centre that has been in operation for approximately three weeks are the final four.
Michelle Staples, mayor of the City of Duncan, that was asked by BC Housing to establish the Cowichan Task Force, which includes Island Health, local governments, First Nations and the school district, said all the sites should be in operation within days.
She reminded concerned neighbours that the sites are temporary, with funding only until June 30; they will have no more than 12 people at each site; and each individual at the tent sites has been identified by the task force as best suited to be there.
“There will also be a lot of support services and security at each site, while a number of hotel rooms in different locations in Cowichan will be used by those who need them,” she said.
“We’re getting a lot of feedback on the tenting sites, with some supporting them and some against them, but that’s to be expected. Homelessness has been identified as the number one issue in Duncan during our latest satisfaction survey, and among our business community, and now the COVID-19 crisis has made it a priority. But now, in cooperation with senior levels of government, we have an opportunity to develop programs for the homeless in the region to ensure we don’t go back to where we were before.”
BC Housing announced earlier this month it will provide $172,000 to support phase one of a plan developed by the Cowichan Task Force to create temporary accommodations for the homeless in the Valley during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, and the Rapid Relief Fund, organized by the Victoria Foundation, Jawl Foundation and Times Colonist, is providing an additional $220,000 for the plan.
Phase one of the plan, which will be funded until the end of June, will see local homeless people housed in a variety of ways, including, small-scale, “family-cluster” serviced outdoor tenting sites housing up to, and no more than, 12 people per site.
It was also agreed that none of the sites would be established in any parks or public green spaces.
Support services that include peer supports, site maintenance and cleaning, shower facilities, laundry services, security, portable washrooms and hand-washing stations will be provided.
The initiative is intended to support the provincial mandate to provide “shelter-in-place” options in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines and keep people safe.
John Horn, executive director of the Cowichan Housing Association and chairman of the Cowichan Task Force, said the tenting sites are a short-term solution to the COVID-19 pandemic until longer-term solutions can be found.
“BC Housing recognizes the urgent need and is committed to working with partners to develop permanent supportive housing in the region,” he said.
“We greatly appreciate [the public’s] understanding of the need to protect the most vulnerable during these difficult times.”
In his biweekly mayor’s report, North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring said this week that there has been considerable community concern about the decision to place one of the tenting sites at Fuller Lake Arena, which is in North Cowichan.
He said most of the concerns have centred on the fact that the community wasn’t consulted on the location.
“And that’s absolutely true, but that’s because our usual process of consultation simply wasn’t possible,” Siebring said.
“In mid-March, North Cowichan’s council cancelled all public consultation going forward because of COVID-19. A week later, the province issued a Ministerial Order which said that if requested, local governments ‘must’ provide a list of municipally owned facilities that would be suitable to address COVID-19 for those who are at risk because of homelessness. Two weeks after that Ministerial Order was issued, we got the formal request, and we suggested two locations within North Cowichan. [Fuller Lake Arena and behind the Cowichan Community Centre].”
Siebring conceded that there hasn’t been a lot of formal consultation on the tenting sites, but said that’s because a lot of the initiative is being crisis-managed.
“COVID-19 has brought a new sense of urgency to this problem,” he said.
“While I acknowledge there’s a need for community accountability on this, the health issues and the ongoing community disorder associated with this file took precedence over normal procedures that would have created bureaucratic delays.”
Seibring said the Cowichan Task Force is also continuing to work on an “exit strategy” to ensure the tenting sites don’t become permanent tent cities in the long run.
“That exit strategy involves engaging BC Housing, and senior governments more generally, to secure funding commitments for more permanent housing, likely modular-built so it can go up quickly, with complete wrap around services, including mental health and addictions support,” he said.