Group of Indigenous people left out of move from tents to housing

A group of Indigenous people now living outdoors fell through the cracks when the province dismantled tent communities on Pandora Avenue and at Topaz Park and moved campers to new temporary housing rooms.

“It’s unfortunate that because our guests weren’t living in one of the two tent cities that they weren’t automatically eligible,” said Ron Rice, executive director of the Victoria Native Friendship Centre on Regina Avenue.

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“If we had just sent them down there with a tent, their lives might be very different right now.”

Fears about the possibility of COVID-19 spreading through homeless populations, combined with the continuing opioid overdose crisis, prompted the province to order tent communities in Victoria and Vancouver taken down in May. B.C. rented rooms and has spent many millions of dollars to buy motels to house those individuals in recent months.

But those staying in Victoria Native Friendship Centre’s 25-bed seasonal shelter were considered housed when the tent communities were being dismantled, so they weren’t offered a place to stay in the motels. Now that the shelter has closed until winter, they have nowhere to go.

The individuals have a “wide range of issues,” Rice said.

They have been provided with contact information for staff and the centre will give them food hampers, he said.

Shelter manager Kalynka Cherkosh put out a call on Facebook for help and raised more than $1,000 to buy items such as rain gear and gift cards. Individuals also donated items. The 10 people have received disinfecting hand wipes and a month’s worth of face masks.

“I’m very worried about them,” Cherkosh said Friday.

The centre’s seasonal shelter provides shuttle services, meals, beds, laundry and shower facilities. Through the winter, its 25 beds were normally full. Housing became available for some people starting a few months ago.

The shelter typically closes at the end of March. This year, the centre received funds from B.C. Housing to keep the shelter open longer and closed at the end of June, Rice said. It was offered funds to run the shelter for another month, but it was not possible to line up enough staff for such a brief employment period, he said.

B.C. Housing spokeswoman Laura Mathews said the agency is working with the centre and the individuals to find them alternate shelter or housing options.

When the tents were coming down, “outreach workers were focused on finding shelter or housing for those residing at Topaz Park and on Pandora Avenue as there was a provincial order in place,” she said.

“However, our partners and outreach workers were then, and continue now to be, very aware of the needs of others in the community who are experiencing or at-risk of homelessness.”

Using hotels for temporary supportive housing during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a vital step to protect vulnerable people, she said.

“A majority of those hotel rooms are full, and there aren’t any spaces available at the arena. These spaces are providing a temporary bridge to housing until long-term options are available.” A total of 45 beds were set up at the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.

B.C. Housing is not looking at leasing any more hotels, Mathews said. The focus instead is to develop permanent supportive housing.

“Across the Capital Regional District, we are working with our partners to build more than 400 homes for people who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness.”

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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