The temporary housing facility at the VIP Motel in Parksville has become a source of controversy since it began operating, without the required temporary use permit from the city, in the fall of last year.
Parksville council listened to complaints, during a public meeting Sept. 7, about alleged increased criminal activity, public disorder, discarded garbage and drug paraphernalia. During the council meeting that followed, an application was declined for a temporary use permit by BC Housing. The facility has been operated through a partnership by the Oceanside Homelessness Ecumenical Advocacy Response Team Society (OHEARTS), under the BC Housing supportive housing model.
But are the 23 residents of the motel, also known as Ocean Place, really the source of these complaints?
Ocean Place houses people from a variety of backgrounds: seniors, people with disabilities, women fleeing domestic violence, people released from hospital and people dealing with addictions, according to Robert Tutty, who operates the facility with OHEARTS.
“We’re more like a hospital than we are a shelter,” Tutty said. “We’re just trying to keep these people going and the only thing they have is us, otherwise they have no hope at all.”
Manager Kelly Morris said many of the residents are bedridden, some with conditions such as dementia.
She added the facility is staffed by two support workers during the day and two at night.
For some, Ocean Place can be a place to stay before moving on to a long-term care facility, permanent housing or addiction treatment. About once a month, someone is discharged from hospital to continue recovery at the motel, according to Tutty.
Morris, a recovery coach and peer support worker, helps get people into addiction treatment centres in places such as Victoria and Vancouver.
“We can’t push them. It would do no good anyway,” said Tutty, who added people will go into treatment when they are ready.
People struggling with drug addiction make up only a small number of Ocean Place residents, according to management.
Jacob Hale moved into Ocean Place in late April, after a five-month stay in Nanaimo Regional General Hospital (NRGH) due to suffering a stroke when he came from Alberta to visit his mother in Parksville for Christmas. While in hospital he lost his home and his job.
Hale said because he walks with a limp and has a speech impediment, he is mistaken for a person under the influence of drugs.
“About six weeks ago I was walking my dog, and as you witnessed I kind of limp — or a lot. Well, after a stroke or a heart attack it affects your muscle movement,” Hale said. “I was walking really slow and some guy told me to get the heck out of his way, ‘if you’re gonna do drugs, go do them somewhere else.’”
Hale said he is frustrated with the assumptions people make about him.
“I am here, down on my luck, strictly due to medical,” he said. “How does my medical condition relate to drugs?”
Hale said staying at Ocean Place has allowed him to progress in his recovery. After arriving in his new home fresh out of a wheelchair, he has been able to pass several medical exams, recover his driver’s licence and purchase essentials, such as pots and pans, for when he moves into affordable housing later this year.
He can no longer work in the oilfield industry because of his injury and the Person with Disabilities (PWD) money he receives is not enough to cover market cost rent, plus his medical expenses, which include insulin and a special diet for diabetes.
Hale said he could not survive on the streets because of his condition.
“I don’t eat, I die. I don’t get my insulin, I die.”
Another way new residents arrive is by RCMP referral. Desiree Harvey was brought to Ocean Place by a police officer after leaving an unsafe living situation. She had been living in Parksville for about four months after moving from Nanaimo.
“When you lose everything, you end up in relationships that aren’t always that healthy, trying to find a place to stabilize,” said Harvey, who lost her home and job in Nanaimo some time ago. “And I became with somebody that was a little controlling and abusive that way and I needed some space.”
Mayor-elect Doug O’Brien said he has visited Ocean Place a few times, including once right after the municipal election to meet people and let them know the city does not plan on enforcing the compliance order.
“I wanted to go and actually just meet with tenants at the VIP just to give them some, I guess, some relaxation, to worries about being evicted out onto the street,” O’Brien said.
He also wanted to let them know he has arranged to meet with BC Housing to find a better solution for the residents. O’Brien added staying at the motel is better than living rough on the streets, but “we can do better”.
He said he does not believe the residents are the cause of neighbourhood complaints about a perceived increase in crime, public substance use and litter, but there are others, living on the streets, more likely to be the cause.
People who walk by the motel in the summer and early fall would have noticed an impressive garden had been planted. That garden sprang up due to hard work by resident Rod Nall, with help from his wife Corinna Winter, who took care of the garden’s flowers.
“Everybody that moves in I give a plant to, so they have something to love and take care of and that’s usually a good start for people,” she said. “Without this home, I’d die on the street. Like I’m disabled really badly and I can hardly walk.”
Winter said Ocean Place residents have become like a family to her. She added they have held barbecues in an effort to reach out to the community and fight the stereotypes, such as the misconception that it is a shelter.
“We’re just regular people that are paying rent somewhere, because we can’t afford $2,000 rent,” Winter said.
Nall started the garden on his own back in May and before long huge sunflowers and stalks of corn were growing, along with potatoes, carrots and radishes.
He said he encourages people to visit and get to know the residents and is frustrated by the public perception about people staying at Ocean Place.
“It doesn’t really help having these people judge us,” Nall said. “They don’t even know who I am. The people who do know me, they have no problems with myself and Joe [Nall’s dog].”
Ocean Place provides marginalized people in Parksville with a safe and secure place to stay indoors, with access to support services and healthy meals, according to a statement by BC Housing.
“BC Housing is aware of concerns recently brought forward by some residents of Ocean Place,” the statement read. “We are working with the operator, OHEARTS, to support them in strengthening their policies and procedures to ensure effective management and oversight.”
Meanwhile, the City of Parksville and BC Housing have entered a compliance agreement that gives BC Housing until the end of March 2023 to find alternative accommodations for residents currently living at Ocean Place.
BC Housing said it is working with community partners to source alternate shelter and housing options for residents within the deadline set under the compliance agreement. “
“We will share an update with the public about the transition once plans have been confirmed,” the statement read.
A statement from the city said staff will continue to work closely with BC Housing to find a solution.