Life at Johnson Street Community: ‘It’s like tent city, but inside’

Bert Woldring walks the corridors of the former Central Care Home on Johnson Street, pointing out busy areas filled with bikes, music and patched walls.

Quieter residents stick to the back of the building, he said. That’s where he lives.

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“Every floor is like a neighbourhood and there are pockets of families. It’s like tent city, but inside,” said Woldring, 61, one of several residents who moved into the building after living in the former tent city on the courthouse lawn last summer.

Woldring pointed out the patchwork of drywall along the walls where holes are filled in almost daily by staff.

“People here are very hard on the building,” he said.

“You can tell how crazy a neighbourhood is by how many of the [wood] doors have been replaced by steel ones.”

The 147-unit building, known as the Johnson Street Community, was part of a $26-million provincial investment in social housing that stemmed from the nine-month homeless camp downtown and the spotlight it put on a lack of affordable housing in the city.

A group calling itself Super Intent City, made up of former tent-city residents and advocates, issued an open letter this week calling for improvements to the building.

The group outlines concerns ranging from the lack of promised services such as storage and a community kitchen to failure to create a residents advisory council and the fact some common rooms are still inaccessible.

The letter writers object to policies such as a requirement to sign in guests, and to the police presence and surveillance cameras in the building. They also take issue with personal bathrooms lacking doors, and public washrooms on each floor being boarded shut — which has led to people using shared shower stalls to urinate and defecate.

“We agreed to move from tent city to 844 Johnson Street on the promise that housing would improve our living conditions not make them worse,” says the letter.

“We were lied to.”

Andy Bond from PHS Community Services Society — which operates the building — said the letter is partially inaccurate and doesn’t represent all tenants. Storage facilities are available but full, he said, and PHS is working on building more.

He also said residents’ meetings were cancelled due to poor attendance and while a kitchen is available to use, most residents prefer the meals that are provided. Bathrooms in the units never had doors but residents can request them, Bond said. The public washrooms were closed because of the risk of overdoses.

“We have about 40 people a day using the [overdose] prevention site and people do sneak into the building,” he said, adding safety issues for residents and staff are the reason for video cameras and asking guests for ID. That includes a few incidents of violence and sexual violence.

“We moved a lot of people in at once without knowing much about them,” said Bond.

Woldring agreed that it feels like police are in the building every day, “keeping a finger on the pulse.” But he has a different take on it from the letter-writers.

“Some residents get upset, but I don’t find them intimidating. I’m very impressed with how they are here,” Woldring said.

“The staff is also very good and very aware of who is in a critical area or situation.”

Police calls to that block of Johnson have more than doubled since the residence opened in September, but almost half the calls are unrelated to crime. Many are connected to overdoses and mental-health issues. In February, 32 of 109 calls were for public-disorder complaints — up from nine in February the year before — but violence calls were down to one or two.

Woldring said many residents have addiction or mental-health problems. That brings another problem: people who don’t live in the building but prey on residents, feeding their habits.

Yet Woldring said a community has formed in the building. Residents turned two unused common rooms into a woodshop and bike-repair area, he said. Some have put art and graffiti commentary they’ve created on their doors, and on one floor is a reading nook and newspaper clippings related to social-justice issues. Woldring uses his room to fix computers for fellow tenants and pitched in with a few to pay for wireless Internet.

“It’s a mixed bag here,” said Woldring. “Some of these people are very creative despite their issues.”

On the third floor, red flowers sit in front of an apartment door where a young man was found dead a few weeks ago. Woldring said he is believed to have died from an overdose. Residents put up a picture and left tribute notes on his door.

It’s not a place Woldring wants to stay forever, but he says he has few options. “I wanted to move on but where to go? Finding housing is very hard,” he said.

Recently, he tried to foster a pet but was denied because of the reputation of the building. He said his attempts to date online were also thwarted by his address.

“It’s hard to have a social life or move on, living here,” he said.

Jane Butler McGregor, head of the Victoria Conservatory of Music a few doors down from the building, said concerns about the building and safety in the area have abated since the province and Island Health began providing 24/7 security. Monthly neighbourhood meetings with PHS and city officials have also helped address worries.

“We’ll see what happens when the weather gets better and more people come outside,” she said.

Neighbourhood concern over Mount Edwards Court on Vancouver Street, another building purchased in the tent-city housing investment, led to units in the building being restricted to residents who are 50-plus and drug-free.

“We understand the school’s concerns and worked with them and B.C. Housing,” said Kathy Stinson, chief executive of Cool Aid Society, which operates the building. There are 38 residents in the transitional housing, but that could expand up to 100 with rezoning and renovations to the second and third floors.

According to Victoria police, there have been few visits to the building’s block since the residence opened in February 2016. Typically, there were fewer than six calls for service each month.

“It’s a well-supported building,” Stinson said. “Many neighbours have told us it’s been very quiet.”

spetrescu@timescolonist.com

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