Province buys Victoria hotel to shelter people at homeless camps

The B.C. government has purchased the Comfort Inn and Suites in Victoria for $18.5 million to provide temporary shelter with supports for 65 people living in homeless camps at Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue.

The long-term plan is to redevelop the site at 3020 Blanshard St. to provide affordable housing.

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Social Development Minister Shane Simpson said the purchase means the province now has all the spaces it needs to evacuate the Pandora and Topaz camps by May 20.

“But maybe even more importantly, it’s a significant site and the redevelopment potential moving forward … is great to be able to do something that supports a range of non-market housing needs,” he said in an interview.

“It could be families, it could be seniors, it could be others.”

Simpson said any project will follow the city’s development processes, including consultations with the community.

The province ordered the evacuation of the camps last month to protect people amid two public health emergencies — the COVID-19 outbreak and the ongoing drug-overdose crisis.

With the purchase of the Comfort Inn, the province has acquired about 440 rooms at hotels, motels and other facilities in Victoria, including 45 spaces at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.

B.C. Housing says 219 of 360 people had moved from the camps into those spaces as of 4 p.m. Thursday. Simpson said more are expected to begin transitioning to the Comfort Inn across from Topaz Park as early as this weekend.

B.C. Housing will partner with Our Place Society to operate the building and make sure people receive meals, health-care services, addictions treatment and harm reduction, and storage for personal belongings. Staff will be on site 24 hours a day to provide security for residents and the neighbourhood.

“This looks like a great opportunity for people to get housed in a very nice location and have those wrap-around supports that Our Place can provide,” said Grant McKenzie, the society’s director of communications, who applauded the government’s long-term plan to convert the site to affordable housing.

“I’ve been really impressed by what I’m seeing from both the province and the city, and how they’re reacting to this crisis,” he said. “It’s a shame that it took COVID to get everybody on board, but I think that everybody is coming together and really looking at those long-term solutions, which is what we do need.”

Avery Stetski, who chairs the board of the Burnside Gorge Community Association, welcomed the plan to convert the Comfort Inn to affordable housing.

But he said the neighbourhood is frustrated that its hotels and motels are supplying most of the temporary shelters for people leaving the camps.

“Right now, our biggest push in Burnside Gorge is to try and get more support for the community — more security, more mental health and addictions support, things like that, so that the problems don’t spill out onto the street.”

Stetski said the neighbourhood understands that it’s a crisis and that people have to go somewhere. “We just want to make sure that it is temporary and that they follow up with what we’ve asked for.”

He added that residents have had a difficult time getting straight answers from B.C. Housing on its plans.

“We believe that people have a right to be housed, but the community also has a right to be safe and livable,” he said.

“That’s what we’re asking the government for and we’re not getting it.”

Provincial officials said Friday that B.C. Housing will create a community advisory committee with representatives from the Hillside-Quadra and Burnside Gorge community associations. The committee will address immediate concerns around the temporary shelters at the Comfort Inn and provide input on future redevelopment.

McKenzie noted that Our Place has previous experience working with people from homeless encampments, including establishing the My Place transitional home at the former Boys and Girls Club on Yates Street in 2016 for people transitioning from a tent city on the courthouse lawn.

“Our Place definitely tries to be the best neighbour it can,” he said. “We always have neighbourhood meetings. We always listen to people that are having complaints in the neighbourhoods.”

Simpson, meanwhile, said the province remains committed to finding permanent housing for the people being moved into temporary accommodations at hotels and motels.

“We’re looking at modular, we’re looking at long-term acquisitions,” he said. “So all of that’s in play and we’ll have more to say about that as we move forward.”

As for other encampments across the city, including in Beacon Hill Park, Simpson said the province continues to work with the city to find solutions.

“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “You know, we’re taking a big bite with this, but nobody is under any illusion that we’ve solved the homelessness problem.”

Mayor Lisa Helps said city staff estimate there are about 90 people living in places other than the Topaz and Pandora camps that need to be housed.

She said the city continues to press the province “not to leave anybody outside in the middle of a health pandemic.”

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