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Rock Bay Landing shelter provides refuge for homeless

About 7 p.m.

About 7 p.m. on a typical night in the Rock Bay Landing shelter, a man with a tattoo under his right eye rolls a marijuana cigarette while a petite woman, sitting with her hands clasped over her knees, stares into the middle of the room with a blank smile. Several men gathered around a television watch a Canucks game. A 25-year-old rolls her wheelchair into the reception area and the little greying chihuahua sitting in her lap elicits plenty of smiles from people who reach down and tousle his matted fur.

Listening to some of residents, you get a sense of the tensions that inevitably follow the drug addiction and mental illness of many shelter residents. One woman talks about how earlier in the month someone was wheeled out on a stretcher because of a non-fatal overdose. A few weeks later, an older man had to be removed because he was spitting vitriol and racist comments about First Nations people.

But there are bright spots, too, including the weekly art classes Patrick Neilson runs and the boisterous games of foosball.

“It gets to you,” 30-year-old Brianna Shiri-White says about life in the shelter, which provides a bed or a mat, or just a chair, for more than 130 people a night. Some prefer camping in the park instead of staying in the shelter because of the pressure-cooker atmosphere among so many conflicting personalities.

Lorraine Perren, a 53-year-old affectionately known as Pinkie, is waiting for a spot in a transition house. She says without the shelter she would have had no place to go. Xan Beauchamp, a budding artist, calls it the only reason he’s not in jail or on the street using drugs.

Such are the extremes that characterize Rock Bay Landing, which opened three years ago this November — the extremes of human emotion, between despair and hope, between frustration and numb nothingness.

But staff work hard to maintain a balance. They provide hot, nutritious meals, clean beds, a willing ear and an open mind. It’s the remarkable patience and positivity they show clients that elevates them beyond staff toward counsellor, mentor, life coach, friend and parent.

Shelter management is also trying to make Rock Bay Landing more than just a place for the homeless to use on a revolving-door basis, but rather part of a more ambitious integrated strategy to find people housing, help them fight addiction and manage their mental illness.

The 84-bed purpose-built shelter opened on Nov. 1, 2010, at a cost of $13 million, to replace the old Street Link shelter on Store Street.

The difference is “night and day,” says Cool Aid Society’s manager of shelters Don McTavish.

Street Link, a dank, crowded space filled with yellow artificial light, was about half the size of the 60,000-square-foot facility at 525 Ellice St.

“Just talking about the building, we have light, we have windows,” he says. “That has a huge impact on people’s attitudes and behaviours and how they are feeling about themselves.”

Cool Aid staff at Street Link were trying to cram 100 people into a space designed for 45, and the cracks were showing in the building and on the residents. The shelter’s Chinatown neighbours weren’t happy. High-end furniture store Chintz & Co. would bear the brunt of the problems, with people camping in the bushes and leaving behind needles and refuse.

Rock Bay Landing is in an industrial area on Ellice Street but that doesn’t mean there’s not a constant effort to rein in the illegal activity and fights that inevitably follow drug addiction and mental illness.

Police calls to the Rock Bay neighbourhood, bounded by Garbally Road, Douglas Street, Hillside Avenue and Turner Street, are up 55 per cent — 1,054 calls between January and October 2013 compared to 678 calls in the same period in 2012.

In fact, this past September and October saw the highest number of calls for police service in the last two years, with 149 and 150 calls in September and October, respectively.

The most common calls were for an “unwanted person,” which more than doubled to 230 so far this year from 101 in 2012. The second most common call was for police needed to assist fire or ambulance such as a medical call or traffic collision which jumped to 115 from 74.

McTavish says he thinks the spike is driven by people who weren’t “using our services in the way we had intended.”

The aim was never for it to be a “one-off service,” where people grab a meal and a bathroom break, stay for awhile and then go back to the “chaos” of being homeless, McTavish says.

“We wanted to draw people from town in this direction if they were going to come and stay for an entire suite of service. So let us get you a bed, then we can provide three meals a day, then we can get to know you a bit and see what else we can do to help and actively, proactively do that kind of work so that we can help someone stabilize their lives a bit, and not just be a drop-in.”

The shelter will bar people from the facility, and from the block, if they’re violent or consistently break the rules around drug use. Victoria police Const. David Bratzer, the community officer assigned to the shelter, helps enforce those bans and also communicates with businesses in the area to make sure the shelter is living up to the good neighbour agreement.

Bratzer and McTavish said they try hard to be responsive from any concerns from their neighbours which includes a day care, a church and several family-owned businesses.

Christine Kenwood, acting executive director of the Single Parents Resource Centre, located half a block from the shelter on Gorge Road East, said the centre has had some problems with needles and garbage around its property. But Kenwood said Rock Bay Landing’s clean team walks around the neighbourhood daily collecting needles and any other garbage.

The shelter has eight client-service workers who work individually with longer-term residents on a plan for their recovery. They’ll accompany them to medical appointments, addiction groups, parole meetings.

Beauchamp, who lives in one of the 23 long-term transition rooms on the fifth floor, is trying to move past the cycle of crime and addiction. He eventually wants to get a job and find a place of his own.

He says his client-service worker, Jesse Morrison, is literally a lifesaver.

“He really helped me to see my personal value a lot more. I’m no longer a criminal. I’m on the methadone program, so I’ll be ready for work in six months,” Beauchamp says.

“He can totally bust you. He’s got this psychic ability to know if you’re screwing up. He puts out this energy that makes you feel like change is easy, it’s not as scary.”

Morrison said staff try and help clients get on waiting lists for affordable housing, set up tenancy education sessions to help people become better renters.

Some clients, especially those trying to overcome addiction, complain the shelter isn’t strict enough about restricting drug use under its roof.

Shiri-White, who doesn’t use hard drugs, says she’s sick of seeing people shoot needles into their necks in the main bathroom. She says complaints about one of her roommates smoking crack in their room fell on deaf ears.

McTavish admits it’s difficult being all things to all people. He says an ideal situation would be several small shelters scattered around Greater Victoria that cater to different populations — young people here, old people there, a shelter for severe addicts here, one for people in transition there.

The shelter follows a harm-reduction strategy, “which means we have supplies available from toothbrushes to Band-Aids to sharps to pipes,” he says.

One Rock Bay Landing resident, Eric Tate, says if he had to design the shelter, he’d have a dry side for recovering addicts and a wet side with a safe-injection site staffed by nurses.

Another resident, John Stitt, who has lived in Rock Bay Landing on and off since it opened, says much of the tension at the shelter is caused by mentally ill people who self-medicate with drugs after they fall through the cracks of the health system.

“We have a lot of mental illness that is not being dealt with in the hospitals, that it’s being dealt with with the drugs, which is magnifying it,” says Stitt, an addict who says he bounced back and forth from being a banker’s son growing up in an upper-class home to a juvenile delinquent who broke into the social services office to get the file about his biological mother. Stitt says the first few years of his life were in a foster home, where he was abused, which tainted the rest of his life, even as his adoptive parents showered him with love, money and attention.

He says the drugs on the street are even more potent and dangerous, as predatory dealers try to cut them with potentially lethal ingredients to increase their profit.

“I have witnessed a huge shift in the drugs being used, and how they’re being used,” Stitt says.

Rev. Al Tysick, former executive director of Our Place Society, sees many of the Rock Bay clients on a daily basis as he does his morning walks around the downtown delivering coffee and cigarettes to the homeless.

Tysick runs the Dandelion Society, which focuses on the most difficult segment of the homeless population — often those who are banned from the shelters because of violence or aggression.

Tysick says when you’re running a shelter for the most vulnerable in society, there will always be success stories and failures. The “ying and the yang” as he calls it.

“We’re not running a convent or a library, we’re running a shelter. Street people come in and to think they’re not going to bring their street issues with them is ridiculous,” Tysick says.

“[Rock Bay Landing] is serving people well and with dignity. There’s no doubt in my mind we’re a better city because of it.”