Former motel rejuvenated for aboriginal housing

For now, it’s a shabby shell of a 1968 motel undergoing renovation, heavy equipment crowding its courtyard. But in April, the refurbished former Traveller’s Inn at 120 Gorge Rd. will welcome a multi-generational aboriginal community desperately in need of affordable housing.

Grandparents raising grandchildren, young families and single adults 19 to 25 who work or attend school are vying to move into Siem Lelum House — which translates as Respected House in Salish.

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Already about 70 applicants are on the waiting list for the 26 suites developed to echo the interactions of traditional village life, said Bruce Parisian, executive director of the Victoria First Nations Friendship Centre.

Siem Lelum has a flexible two-year occupancy program for tenants, who are expected to pay monthly rents of $425 for studios to $620 for a one-bedrooms or small family units. It’s one of two Traveller’s Inns purchased by the City of Victoria in 2010 for $5.8 million. The other is now the 36-unit Queens Manor, run by the Victoria Cool Aid Society at 710 Queens Ave., with ownership soon transferring to B.C. Housing.

Siem Lelum has undergone $1.1 million in renovations with the help of the city, the Capital Regional District, Ottawa’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.

Chief Andy Thomas of the Esquimalt Nation told a media tour on Tuesday that the project is a major step in helping aboriginal peoples struggling to get by off the reserves “to feel like they have a home, even if they’re away from home.”

Several years ago, the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness found that while aboriginals make up 2.8 per cent of the local population, they represent 25 per cent of homeless people — a finding that appalled civic leaders, said Victoria Coun. Charlayne Thorton-Joe.

First Nations have a birth rate six times higher than other Canadians, and the number of children in care has had a huge impact on community life, including the plight of youth who have lived in up to 30 foster homes before the system abruptly stops paying for their care, Parisian said.

One major way to address those issues is by “putting a roof over their heads and supporting them,” he said.

“We’re going to create employment opportunities, training opportunities — there are many, many kinds of things that we’re trying to change here and one of the big issues is trying to change what’s happening with people at the poverty level.”

The first stage includes 14 studios, three one-bedroom apartments and nine small family apartments and a laundry room. Another 19 units are expected next year.

A variety of support services will be available on and off site for tenants, who are expected to commit to “positive change in their lives” and give back one hour of volunteer service per week. There will be a community centre, with cooking and other kinds of classes

The city will shoulder a net purchase cost of $1.3 million not recovered from funding partners and is negotiating to sell Siem Lelum House to the Victoria Native Friendship Centre.

Suzanne Cole, executive director of the Burnside Gorge Community Association, said members are excited to see the long-awaited project under development. They’re looking for a strong partnership with the Friendship Centre, not just in terms of fitting in with the neighbourhood plan but to “really embrace and welcome Siem Lelum.”

kdedyna@timescolonist.com

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