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Shipping containers provide tiny homes for those in need in Comox Valley

Until recently, Craig, who is in his 70s, was living in a decrepit, leaky trailer in the Maple Pool Campground in Courtenay.

Until recently, Craig, who is in his 70s, was living in a decrepit, leaky trailer in the Maple Pool Campground in Courtenay.

His new home is only a few metres away in the RV park, but the purpose-built shipping container, outfitted with a shower, toilet and kitchenette, is the most stable home he’s had in years.

The 10-acre RV park is now home to four shipping containers for the hard-to-house. Grant Shilling, an outreach worker with the Comox Valley’s Dawn to Dawn Action on Homelessness, said the program could provide a model for affordable, sustainable housing across Vancouver Island.

The program, called We Can Shelter Project, has so far been entirely fueled by donations, but Shilling would like to see an investment by B.C. Housing to expand it and house more people.

“We could probably solve the housing problem here in the Comox Valley with this container program,” Shilling said.

In Victoria, Aryze Developments and the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness have partnered to raise $500,000 to convert 30 shipping containers into tiny homes for people sheltering in parks.

Shilling said the We Can program is evidence that tiny homes with the right amenities can provide comfort, stability and privacy to people who have lived so long without those necessities.

The We Can program was launched in 2019 by Charlene Davis, the former president of the Rotary Club of Comox, who was looking for a way to help the homeless population in the Comox Valley.

“I thought homelessness is coming at us in a big way and the best way to approach that is to do some construction on some containers,” said Davis, the project manager and now a board member of Dawn to Dawn. “We’ll keep building until we run out of money.”

The first resident moved in in October 2019, and more containers have been added as fundraising dollars come in. The fifth one is under construction and Davis hopes it will be ready by the spring.

Tenants for the shipping containers are selected by Shilling based on who is in greatest need of stable housing. It’s extremely difficult, he said, because there are so many people with mental-health and addiction problems without homes in the Comox Valley.

The first person to move in was a woman who had been on the street for a decade and had suffered from repeated heart attacks. The woman was not able to “beat her demons,” Davis said, and died in early 2020. “But she did spend the last five months of her life not living in the bush.”

For the four people currently living in the containers, calls for ambulance service have dropped by 75 per cent, Davis said. Mobile outreach teams and harm-reduction services visit the site almost daily. Shilling, Dawn to Dawn’s sole employee, also visits frequently.

Residents pay $350 a month in pad rental to Maple Pool Campground, an amount covered by the provincial government’s shelter allowance. The containers also have decks to maximize living space.

Previously, some residents, including Craig, were living in donated trailers on the site, but Shilling said the maintenance and utilities were so expensive, it was becoming a huge drain on Dawn to Dawn’s budget.

Shilling said he’s seen a major improvement in Craig’s health now that he has a comfortable place to live.

“It’s a way of giving people peace of mind. When you close that door, it’s their own space,” he said. “They know that they’re safe and secure.”

Each shipping container costs between $20,000 and $22,000, but Davis said the cost would be higher if it weren’t for donated and deeply discounted services. The local Home Hardware ­provides a major discount, Blinds & Bubbles Boutique donated the window coverings, Colonial Countertops provided free countertops and S G Mechanical Installations did much of the plumbing, welding and some electrical without charge. ­Georgia Straight Towing transports the completed ­trailers from construction site to campground.

The Rotary Club of Comox has donated more than $30,000, the Comox Valley Community Foundation has donated $20,000 and the rest has been raised by community fundraisers such as one at Roy’s Town Pub.

“They recognize what a great solution this is and what an impact it’s had on the hardest to house,” Shilling said.

But Davis said government funding is needed to make the project truly sustainable. She has approached B.C. Housing about purchasing the campground and putting dozens of shipping containers on the property.

A house on the site that is currently occupied by Maple Pool’s owners, Dali and Jin Lin, could be turned into a treatment facility, Davis said. Another administrative building could be built to provide on-site health and harm-reduction services, she said. She also envisions a common meeting space.

B.C. Housing said in a statement that while it appreciates innovative housing proposals, the campground isn’t appropriate for permanent housing because it’s located on a floodplain.

It said it has asked its Comox Valley partners to submit housing proposals prior to Jan. 15, the deadline for Community Housing Fund requests for proposals. B.C. Housing pointed to the recent opening of 46 new supportive homes on 8th Street with land donated by the City of Courtenay, and 35 new affordable rental homes for people at risk of homelessness, which opened last year in Courtney.

Despite those investments, Shilling feels the Comox Valley often gets overlooked for provincial housing funding.

“We’re not getting the same kind of funding that major cities are getting,” he said. “Dawn to Dawn is demonstrating an ability to show a solution to the problem.”