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'Just let them die alone in the forest?': Sooke mayor pleads for help with homelessness

Sooke Mayor Maja Tait has issued a plea for help dealing with homelessness in her community as people continue to arrive from elsewhere searching for food and a place to stay during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Sooke Mayor Maja Tait says her town’s 20-bed shelter in a former restaurant is full and other people are living rough in forested areas or undeveloped land. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Sooke Mayor Maja Tait has issued a plea for help dealing with homelessness in her community as people continue to arrive from elsewhere searching for food and a place to stay during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a brief appearance by telephone at the Capital Regional District’s housing committee Wednesday, Tait said her town’s 20-bed shelter in a former restaurant is full and other people are living rough in forested areas or undeveloped land.

She said Sooke has bands of caring volunteers and its food bank tries to accommodate everyone, but the influx of people is testing the community’s patience and resources.

“It’s when we have new folks coming out this way, they don’t fit into the culture of the shelter, they get turned away and it causes problems,” she said.

“So is that the answer? We just drive them back to your various communities and say: ‘OK, you need to look after your own?’ ” Because that’s what our community is urging me to do.”

Instead, Tait called for a regional response to the growing homelessness problem that has tended to attract the most attention in Victoria, where hundreds of people are now camping in public parks. She specifically pointed to the need for additional services on the West Shore.

“We don’t have vacant commercial and retail space out this way,” she said. “And is there nothing in any of your communities that would fit people, or is that it? Just let them die alone in the forest? That’s just … The reality of the situation is heartbreaking.”

View Royal Mayor David Screech, who sits on the ­housing committee, agreed with Tait about the gap in West Shore services and said he’s been trying to arrange a meeting to address that issue.

“We should have some sort of an emergency shelter, which at the moment is missing and so we should collectively work on that,” he said.

John Reilly, the CRD’s manager of housing planning and programs, said the issues are being felt across the region.

“We’re hearing concerns from what I would consider four real hot spots,” he said. “Sooke is one, the core, of course, Sidney and Salt Spring Island.”

Reilly said the district is working closely with B.C. Housing and everyone is “really quite concerned” about the situation in Sooke. As well, Island Health has received additional money for mental health and substance-use work, he said.

“We brought to their attention the substantial need in the West Shore and up into the Sooke area to see if we can get … some resources set up in those areas.”

Tait, past president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities, said communities in B.C. and across the country face similar challenges, but everyone needs to share the load.

“The concern I have is the opioid crisis continues to rage on, the pandemic is resulting in job loss, rents are rising, roommate situations are falling apart,” she said.