Steve, who prefers to go by his first name, has been sleeping in a tent in the bush while waiting for a shelter to open up in Parksville.
“You are out there on your own, I’m too old to be out there as it is,” he said, on a phone call while at the local food bank. “If you don’t have money, go away or die, they don’t even want to see you.”
St. Anne’s Church, used as the only shelter in the area, closed in mid-March due to COVID-19 concerns. It was opened through OHEART (the local group that worked with BC Housing to originally find a shelter solution), which consists of nine Parksville Qualicum Beach area churches that came together to work towards a shelter solution. OHEART has been continuing to work together to find a permanent shelter situation for the area, and the issue is even more pressing with the onset of COVID-19.
The 125-year-old church is small, with no running water and couldn’t keep up with the necessary health and safety standards.
Kelly Morris and Patrick Simpson, frontline workers who work with people affected by homelessness in the area, gave Steve and others tents to sleep in.
“We’re giving them brand-new tents, blankets, pillows – St. Anne’s has been helping us out with blankets and pillows,” said Morris. “Get some services here to help these people.”
Rev. Christine Muise, the Priest Associate for St. Anne’s as well as the founding director for OHEART, echoed Morris — she said the area needs a solution now.
“I don’t know if it’s being dealt with the gravity it ought to be, for the safety of all of our citizens,” she said.
At a Regional District of Nanaimo meeting on March 25, the board passed a motion that read:
“The RDN board directs RDN staff to communicate and work with the provincial government, BC Housing, Oceanside Heart and the municipal CAOs of Oceanside in an effort to replace the St. Anne’s Assisi shelter for Oceanside during this provincial state of emergency due to COVID-19.”
“We do have ongoing conversations with BC Housing and the government and we’re getting more directions from them every day,” said Ian Thorpe, RDN board chairman. “So, things are changing quickly and constantly, but it’s something that is on our radar.”
Thorpe said the RDN also has no housing function, nor a budget for it, but that they’re doing what was already asked of them by the province by compiling a list of facilities that could be used for other purposes, including shelter.
“That’s where we’re at, but certainly nothing in terms of a timeline at this point,” he said.
So far, BC Housing has been able to put some of the people in need in hotels in the PQB area. However, Muise said that doesn’t work for everyone — there’s a number of people needing shelter who wouldn’t be able to live in a hotel.
“They need a shelter, they need a place that’s staffed,” she said. “It’s all nice to put someone in a room, but it’s not going to work if they need the visible supports of care to remain stable.”
John O’Halloran is one of the people who used to stay at St. Anne’s, but is now living at a hotel paid for by BC Housing. He said getting the news that St. Anne’s would close was shocking.
“Of course, there was some expectation, we’re in such close quarters,” he said. “Find us a shelter and put us in someplace and we won’t be homeless.”
The scramble for a shelter is something Muise and O’Halloran are familiar with — the area waited for months to find a cold-weather shelter solution in the fall and winter of 2019. ‘Sanctuary Sleep’ at St. Anne’s, the oldest church on Vancouver Island, opened in December 2019 and has been well-attended since.
Muise said a replacement for St. Anne’s needs to be a staffed building with running water and more space — two things St. Anne’s lacked. Muise points to local community centres and spaces that are currently sitting empty as possible locations.
“We need a building that has a kitchen and showers and washrooms that can properly be cleaned,” she said. “And we can set aside spaces and layout rooms so that we can actually follow the distancing, the handwashing, and actually teach and educate about the importance of it.”
In Muise’s eyes, now is the time for the municipalities to collaborate on a solution.
“This is not something that this little church can come up with, this church isn’t safe and I don’t think there’s another church option,” she said. “Statistically, we’re putting so many people at risk by these folks not having a safe place to be.”