Duncan shelter for women rejected after neighbours protest

Duncan council has rejected a proposal for a 15-bed temporary winter shelter for women that was strongly opposed by neighbours.

The vote underscores the issue of how to provide safe shelter for homeless women. In Nanaimo, a shortage of shelter beds sent some women to a tent city for homeless people that was ordered to shut down next month.

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In Duncan, residents near 540 Cairnsmore St. signed petitions, wrote letters and showed up at council to fight the shelter plan, which they argued was not suitable for their family-oriented neighbourhood, filled with children and with five daycares.

Concerns included drug use and discarded drug paraphernalia, public intoxication, vandalism, theft, loitering and the impact on property values. The property at the edge of downtown earmarked for the shelter is owned by the Cowichan Valley School District.

Several citizens agreed that the shelter was needed, but said the proposal did not suit the area and would be a stop-gap measure rather than a long-term solution.

Neighbour William Viksush, who opposed the plan, said in a letter that if the temporary shelter is needed because women do not feel safe going to the mixed-gender shelter, Warmland House, then Warmland should address that.

One speaker with young children told council: “I realize that it is needed. But it is not needed in a neighbourhood that is just starting to thrive.”

The Cowichan Women Against Violence Society had proposed offering emergency shelter beds from 5:30 p.m. to 9 a.m., November to March.

Homeless women are forced to “scramble daily for shelter and are at significant risk of finding themselves in potentially vulnerable and dangerous situations,” Jane Sterk, the society’s executive director, said in a letter.

Women are seriously under-represented at Warmland, she said, adding the shelter’s manager told her about a dozen women will not use it.

Coun. Sharon Jackson said residents at an earlier meeting on the proposal felt they did not get a chance to be heard. Information about the proposal was not effectively distributed to the neighbourhood. “Whole streets were missed.”

The issue is long-standing in the community and could have been better addressed, she said.

Jackson said that a year ago, she suggested a trailer dedicated to women could be brought to the Warmland House site.

Mayor Phil Kent backed the homeless shelter for women, saying the community has to “reject the fear.” He added Duncan was one of the first communities in the region to have a homeless society. “This community used to step up. When did we stop stepping up?”

Kent recalled spending a few weeks in the cab of his pickup truck as a teenager.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “It’s not a great lifestyle.”

Kent also noted that he lives next door to an overdose prevention site. “They are right outside my bedroom window.”

In Nanaimo, the situation for homeless women is desperate, with women-only shelter beds full year-round, said Violet Hayes, executive director of the Island Crisis Care Society.

“We are turning away so many women. For the last two years, it has been constant. Sometimes women in their 70s and 80s,” she said. “Isn’t that shocking?”

Some women were long-term tenants in homes that are now being sold because of high real-estate values, she said.

The Nanaimo society provides emergency shelter beds, and supportive and transitional housing. There are 26 beds, including two dorms serving as shelters, and the society receives provincial money to subsidize rent. “We could easily double [capacity] and still not be covering all the need.”

Homeless women have nowhere to go, she said. “Now a lot of them are going down to tent city. I believe there are quite a few women at tent city and some of them are very vulnerable women.”

The society would like to expand and already has land and municipal approvals in place for that, Hayes said. But it doesn’t have the money. The two-year-old estimate for construction was about $2 million.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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