Among a graveyard of headstones dating back to the 1800s, down Church Road in Parksville, is a 125-year-old church called St. Anne’s — an old, wooden building that has somehow turned into a place where people affected by homelessness in the community feel safe.
John O’Halloran is one of those people — he’s been staying at the church since it opened its ‘pray and stay’ vigil in lieu of a cold-weather shelter on Dec. 6. Even once a cold-weather shelter solution was found, O’Halloran and many others kept staying at St. Anne’s. In fact, no one showed to the pickup spot for the much anticipated rotating shelter solution on Dec. 19.
O’Halloran, who is 66 and has lived in the area on and off for 30 years, said after waiting five weeks for a cold-weather shelter to open up, having St. Anne’s step in meant a big difference. He said the likes the environment, and the idea of shuffling between a different church every night is much less appealing.
“We’ve been all just coming here at night to stay warm and get through the winter,” he said.
The area, which has been in shelter limbo for months, finally got a cold-weather shelter solution in late December. Instead of having a dedicated spot, the plan was for seven churches to share the shelter duties. People who wanted to use the shelter were supposed to meet at a designated spot within a 45-minute window to get picked up and then transported to the night’s location.
So, after no one showed up to the designated pick up spot on the first day, St. Anne’s decided they would keep up their doors open.
Rev. Christine Muise, the Priest Associate for the church as well as the founding director for OHEART (the group working with BC Housing to find a shelter solution), initially said they would offer a place for people to sleep and feed them until a shelter solution was found.
However, since the seven-church rotation has been proved ineffective, Muise said they will continue hosting, and have now renamed it ‘Sanctuary Sleep.’ The rotation has stopped for now, but Muise said the other churches are contributing to St. Anne’s in different ways, and are ready to host places to sleep if necessary.
O’Halloran said he thinks the designated pick up spot approach wasn’t working for a variety of reasons.
“It’s been fun for the people who thought it up, [but not for] the people who have to use it, who have to meet up at five o’clock at Salvation Army then be transported to a different shelter every night,” he said. “They said it was creative, but it didn’t solve the problem at all, and nobody really wants to use that system at all.”
Part of it, he said, is adjusting to new rules that come with a new location. At St. Anne’s they take a low-barrier shelter approach. They allow couples to share a bed, which might not be allowed by every location. Also, the church allows people to show up when they want for a place to sleep, rather than having a hard entry time.
O’Halloran said another huge thing is having a consistent place to come back to — somewhere familiar.
“This place is continuity, it’s got flexibility,” he said. “It’s just wonderful that we get to live in this space and it’s very very clean.”
Still, O’Halloran said what the area desperately needs is a 24-hour shelter.
“There are lots of people who need shelter and it’s just not being provided, and you see other resources lacking in the community,” he said. “They want to support the development of retiree homes, but other than that, they really don’t have much of an interest in lower-income people.”
Orion Holtby, who has been staying at the church with his wife since the second night it opened, echoed O’Halloran’s sentiments about St. Anne’s feeling like a warm and safe space.
Before it opened, he said he would walk around Parksville through the night to stay warm. Then, in the day, he would find a place to sleep for a few hours.
“I was just so relieved when this place opened,” he said. “It’s just nice to be able to sleep in the same bed as your wife, it’s just little things like that and knowing that the community has really stepped forward.”
In terms of how the community has contributed — people have donated everything from sleeping supplies to a mini-fridge.
Staying at St. Anne’s also helped Holtby get off opioids, he said. He said since staying at the church, he’s had two clean drug tests.
Orion said although the program had been a ‘stay and pray’ vigil, he said he doesn’t feel like the faith component has been a deterrent for anyone coming to the church.
“I’m not a huge church person, but it’s really been uplifting and this church has so much history,” he said.
Muise said the community is welcome to stop by St. Anne’s, and she said a big part of what they want to do with the ‘Sanctuary Sleep’ is break down stigma and connect everyone from the area. Muise said she was initially worried that people in Parksville Qualicum Beach would be mad or judge her for opening up the church, but she said she’s seen nothing but kindness from the community.
“The community has gotten divided over a few very specific decisions that were made in that divisiveness, we’ve hurt the people that were trying to serve,” she said. “I think we’re all at the point now where it’s OK — where we’ve been wasn’t pretty, it was pretty ugly, but we don’t want to be there anymore.”
If anyone is interested in volunteering at St. Anne’s, or wants more information, they can email firstname.lastname@example.org.