Jack Knox: Officialdom celebrates Vic West shelter, but residents not so sure

By the time the government finally announced its latest housing-for-the-homeless project Wednesday morning, it felt like a case of barn door closing, horse gone.

Posters were already affixed to utility poles, calling Russell Street residents to a protest rally that afternoon. Construction noise already poured out of the Vic West building in question. It had been five days since CTV News reported that the province was to convert the vacant warehouse and office space to house people being moved out of Beacon Hill Park and similar settings.

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So, yes, when 50 or so residents gathered in the quiet dead-end street, throwing around words like “blindsided” and “shell-shocked” to describe the way they had been treated by politicians and bureaucrats — the ones who were celebrating the news as a big step in Victoria’s homelessness crisis — the impression was of someone standing on shore, trying to stop a ship that had already sailed.

Here’s what’s going on: B.C. Housing is buying the property at 225 Russell as a temporary — between 18 months and two years — shelter for 70 people. It’s part of a plan that will see the City of Victoria and the province move more than 200 people out of encampments by April 30.

Since January, 116 people have been relocated to supportive housing and shelter spaces, including those at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre and the Capital City Center Hotel on Douglas Street.

More permanent housing is on the horizon. On March 24, the city and the province announced the construction of 192 supportive-housing units spread over four Victoria locations — 45 units at 865 Catherine St., 60 units at 959 and 953 Balmoral Rd., 50 units at 1053 and 1075 Meares St., and 37 units at 1176 Yates St. — with all projects to be complete by the summer of 2022 or earlier.

The plan is to also turn the Russell Street site into supportive housing in a couple of years, but until then, it will be run by the Our Place Society as a temporary shelter, with the purchase price and renovation cost totalling $9.4 million.

A Vic West neighbourhood group has been told priority will be given to the “medically vulnerable,” there will be a minimum of three overnight staff on site, and other supports will be provided.

Should all this come as a surprise? Well, it was obvious that the dislodged tenters will have to go somewhere until new housing, including that announced March 24, is ready.

But the residents of lower Russell, a one-block mix of private strata townhomes, co-op housing, subsidized supportive housing and a few single-family residences, the whole bookended by Esquimalt Road and the Westsong Walkway, had no inkling that the shelter was coming. It was presented as a fait accompli.

Even when they gathered in the street Wednesday afternoon, there was nowhere to direct their frustration. The construction workers who had been so busy in the morning were all gone, replaced by a couple of security guards, which seemed like overkill considering that the protesters looked more likely to break out in a pickleball game than a riot.

No one from officialdom showed up to present their case, so the residents were left to vent their frustrations to one another: no due process, no consultation, no suitability assessment. A typical protest sign: “We pay tax. We vote. We live here. Shouldn’t we count, too?” (A counter-protester stood on the fringe, holding aloft a sign reading “Housing is a right.”)

Several residents took pains to sympathize with homeless people and express the need for suitable housing, but the overarching sentiment was a worry that the addition of 70 troubled people would overwhelm the street. Some residents are already pricing out security gates.

NIMBYism? A case of people who have homes complaining about those who don’t? An unjustified smear on the new, vulnerable neighbours? Certainly, Victoria has a history of getting worked up about social-housing projects that, in the end, work out fine. (Note that four years after the great hullabaloo over the conversion of Mount Edwards Court into supportive housing, the sky has not fallen.)

At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore the drama around some of the temporary shelters into which people were so hastily crammed over the past year. (Note that in the wee hours of Wednesday, someone assaulted a staff member at the arena shelter, then tried to take on the cops.)

What would your reaction be?

jknox@timescolonist.com

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