Death in Royal Athletic Park shelter site underscores need for more housing, supports: advocates

Outreach workers and community advocates say the sudden death of a man living in a tent next to Royal Athletic Park underscores the urgency of providing stable housing and dedicated harm-reduction services for people without homes.

The B.C. Coroners Services said it is investigating the death, which Victoria police said is not considered suspicious.

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Victoria police were called to the parking lot next to Royal Athletic Park, where about 35 people are living in tents, just before 5 p.m. Sunday after receiving a report that a body had been discovered. Those living in the park told outreach workers they fear the man died of an overdose.

The person has not been publicly identified, but police said their loved ones have been notified.

Rachel Phillips, the executive director of PEERS Victoria Resources Society, said she was at the shelter site on Sunday when residents told her they had found a man deceased in his tent. She called 911 and outreach workers went to check whether the man could be saved with Naloxone, which counters the effects of opioids. He could not be revived.

PEERS has been operating a warming tent in the Caledonia Avenue parking lot since Dec. 28, when people were relocated from Central Park after heavy flooding. However, Phillips said it’s only recently that the warming tent has extended its hours into the evening. She said the shelter location lacks the around-the-clock support services, such as safe consumption sites, found in supportive housing facilities.

“The barriers and challenges that people living outside are coping with every day, it makes it hard to institute any kind of harm-reduction measures,” Phillips said. “If you’re living outside in a tent in winter and there’s no harm-reduction services overnight, where are you going to use? Of course it’s in your tent.”

Outreach workers and the North Park Neighbourhood Association have been waiting for news from B.C. Housing as to whether the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre could again be used as a temporary shelter for people without homes.

The arena, which was used as emergency shelter for 45 people from May to September, is sitting unused because the Western Hockey League has delayed the start of its season due to the pandemic.

Sarah Murray, president of the North Park Neighbourhood Association, said the death underscores the urgency of getting people inside where they can access adequate services.

“If the urgency wasn’t felt before, it’s absolutely felt now,” Murray said. “We’re just really hopeful there will be an update [from B.C. Housing] soon and we will see more people brought indoors with the supports they need so this type of tragedy doesn’t happen again.”

There are plans to house people in 30 “tiny homes” on the Royal Athletic Park parking lot. Mayor Lisa Helps hopes to see people living in them by March 31.

Helps said Monday it’s “terrible” to see another suspected overdose death in the community. She said the COVID-19 pandemic has largely overshadowed the overdose crisis, declared a public health emergency in 2016.

The overdose crisis “has gone largely unaddressed and it has gotten worse,” she said. “COVID has made the drug supply more toxic.”

Helps said she’s confident the B.C. government will move to address the overdose crisis and provide more treatment services to people with substance use issues.

In the first 11 months of 2020, 1,548 people died from illicit drug overdose deaths in B.C. That puts the province on track to break a record for the most yearly overdose deaths in the past decade.

— With a file from Jeff Bell

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