A senior who lives across from the former Mount Tolmie Hospital says she was initially open to the idea of allowing some of the region’s unsheltered population take up residence in the building.
“I wanted to be a good citizen because I feel for the homeless. I wanted to be open to the situation.”
But two months later, Nancy, who didn’t want her last name to be published, is angry and fearful.
Over the weekend, the gate leading into her condominium’s parking garage and storage lockers was vandalized. In late August, six storage lockers were ransacked and looted.
There is screaming and yelling at all hours, suspicious and strung-out people lurking near ground-floor windows and daily calls to police, ambulance and the fire department, she said.
Nancy said she encountered a person who was acting strangely walking toward her while she was on her way home from getting groceries at nearby Fairway Market.
She turned around and walked the other way, waiting in Shelbourne Plaza until the path was clear to walk home.
“It was scary … this is in the middle of the day,” the senior said. “What [the provincial government] is doing isn’t working. It’s only making people feel frustrated and frightened.”
B.C. Housing moved 24 people in need of shelter from Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre into the former long-term care home at Richmond Road and Cedar Hill Cross Road on June 14. But neighbours say there are many more people hanging around the area.
The shelter is hemmed in on one side by businesses and on two sides by residential apartments and condos, with residents ranging from UVic and Camosun students to seniors.
Ryon Bateman, acting director of the Mount Tolmie Community Association, said residents are having ongoing meetings with Saanich Mayor Fred Hayes and police about their concerns.
He said residents have reported serious incidents involving assault, theft, bodily-harm threats, drug deals and prostitution, along with break-and-enters and property damage, and people sleeping rough in the neighbourhood close to the shelter.
Two suspects were arrested in late August in connection with at least five break-and-enters at residential complexes in the area, including break-ins to storage lockers where firearms were stolen. A shotgun, handgun and rifle remain missing. Police won’t say if the suspects in the five break-and-enters live or lived at the Mount Tolmie shelter, citing privacy considerations.
Saanich police Const. Markus Anastasiades said the department has seen a 39% increase in calls for service to the area surrounding the shelter since it was opened in mid-June, based on a four-year average. However, most calls have not been related to criminal activity but were typically “checks on the welfare of persons and suspicious activities,” he said.
He said the increase in calls doesn’t come as a surprise, noting police have beefed up patrols in the area. “We anticipated the community would call us to report these types of concerns and we encouraged them to do so through community meetings.”
Anastasiades said it’s difficult to determine how much of the increase in calls is directly related to the sheltering site.
He said Saanich police has “a positive, constructive and open-dialogue relationship” with B.C. Housing and the Portland Housing Society, which manages the shelter.
Emails requesting interviews with both agencies were not immediately answered. Staff contacted at the shelter said the public is welcome to call the facility about their concerns, but media queries had to go through the society’s head office.
In a letter to neighbours, B.C. Housing said the former Mount Tolmie Hospital facility was selected as a shelter because it was “available, close to amenities and … fits with existing zoning.
The need for emergency shelters has been exacerbated by the overdose crisis and the pandemic, the agency said, adding the safety of residents and surrounding community is a priority.
Darcy Eidt, who lives in a condo unit next to the shelter, said it was a “very undemocratic” process.
“There was no consultation. They just said here it is … no asking … you deal with it,” said Eidt. “And they just dumped a shelter into a neighbourhood of senior citizens.”
He said the housing agency promised 24-7 security, but he doubts whether that’s happening. “They did have it for about three weeks,” said Eidt. But lately “security hasn’t been seen by anyone, and I’ve checked with all my neighbours.”
“The cursing, the swearing, the yelling … it’s unnerving,” said Eidt.
Haynes said the municipality had no say in the opening of the shelter. While he said he understands the concerns of residents and businesses, “there is a regional need and we’re doing it. Our goal is to make the best of it.”
Haynes said police, fire, bylaw and parks department personnel are all on heightened alert in the area, watching for illegal camping in nearby parks and on Mount Tolmie, trimming back bushes and improving lighting.
He said police and municipal officials are following up on every complaint from residents and businesses.
There are uniformed and plainclothes police officers doing vehicle, foot and bike patrols, and Saanich is “acutely aware of other groups who are predatory to the vulnerable and associated with drug dealing and other criminal activities.”
Haynes said residents of the shelter are selected because they want to get away from the “hardcore lifestyle” more associated with downtown. “And we are seeing these individual successes, like a father stable enough to finally see his children,” he said. “These are small steps. It’s a work in progress.”