Steve Davidson was living in Nanaimo’s tent city five years ago when he and everyone else were told to pack up their stuff. As the city and province went into overdrive that year to tackle visible homelessness, people at the camp were told they could move into a new compound of hastily-built temporary modular housing.
He followed instructions.
But Mr. Davidson, a onetime sales rep for Xerox in Richmond, was told at the last minute he was too functional to qualify for the supportive housing set up at Newcastle Place. Others got on the bus that took them to a new home. He didn’t. In the meantime, his tent and the clothing he’d accumulated had been thrown out.
So he spent the next five years on the streets, slowly deteriorating, developing bacterial skin infections on his legs, too incapacitated to make it to the shelters at the top of Nanaimo’s hills, continuing to use crystal meth and heroin, getting less and less able to make useful decisions for himself. Finally, last year, a street-outreach team connected with him and lobbied to get him accepted into some kind of housing.
Mr. Davidson’s history, his present, and his hopes for the future echo many of the current realities of B.C.’s complex, burgeoning and seemingly intractable difficulties in ending or even reducing homelessness.
He was judged to be not dysfunctional enough for housing until he was out on the street another five years, a victim of changing policies on who should be offered housing. His only option when he was finally accepted was to live in a place that seems more like a minimum-security jail at times than a home.
But he also has the hope he will some day move into something that doesn’t get much attention: the thousands of relatively new apartments designated for people needing extra supports that have been built in B.C. in the past decade and especially the past five.
Over the past decade, the province’s non-profit sector has been responsible for taking care of an increasing number of homeless people and those with severe behavioural, mental-health or drug-use problems. Along the way, non-profit providers have had to develop new strategies – and rules – to maintain order and safety.
As the province has been pummelled by the intertwined crises of overdoses, COVID-19 and skyrocketing housing costs, the scramble to house the most vulnerable has led to a vast variety of options, from older facilities to those brand new and purpose built.
The housing stock includes shabby, unrenovated hotels and motels the province panic-bought during various crises – the Olympic Games, the pandemic, tent camps – and where non-profit housing operators have been given only minimal staffing to keep them secure and help existing tenants get the medical, psychiatric, drug-treatment, social-skills or meal assistance they need to stabilize.
There are also new buildings with the same lack of support, set up at a time when the province was focused intensely on getting the unit count up to prove it was doing something about homelessness.
Then there are new buildings where BC Housing has agreed to provide for lots of staff to help residents who may have been homeless for 20 years or more adjust to being sheltered, as well as mediating conflicts between residents, monitoring rooms for bugs, fires and weapons, and making the tough choices when someone must be evicted.
Nikao is a site in Nanaimo that falls into the latter category and is where Mr. Davidson ended up. It’s far from cozy. Nikao, operated by Pacifica Housing, the non-profit organization with the largest number of social- and supportive-housing buildings on Vancouver Island, is a collection of construction trailers in a parking lot in an industrial zone, surrounded by chain-link fence. It has a lot of rules.
There are no visitors allowed inside Nikao’s chain-link fence, not even a family member for coffee. Incoming residents are only permitted to bring in one duffel bag of belongings and there are weekly checks on their rooms to make sure any hoarding is kept to a level below fire hazard. There are no weapons and anyone who assaults another resident or staff member is very likely to be evicted.
It has about two dozen full-time employees, including two managers, plus some part-time workers to work with the 66 residents on site.
It’s the kind of place some people who are homeless won’t come to, hating the restrictions and the small rooms in trailers in the middle of nowhere.
But Mr. Davidson appreciates the weekly availability of a doctor, the on-site meals provided and the space for his television, clothes and tidily arranged collection of salt and pepper shakers.
He knows there are other, much more pleasant apartments available nearby which he might qualify for, even if he has to wait months or years.
“My understanding was that, within two years, I would be moved into permanent housing somewhere. This isn’t the end of my story,” Mr. Davidson says.
One possibility could be the new Samaritan Place, a project that opened just last year.
Another is Pacifica’s Uplands Walk, a 33-unit building in a neighbourhood of large houses, cul-de-sacs, trees and lawns in the north end of Nanaimo. The nine-year-old building has large studio apartments with full kitchens, common rooms where people can lounge or participate in community meals, gleaming stone aggregate floors and attractive landscaping. In the coming months, residents there will be given the chance to make extra money by taking on the cleaning and upkeep of the building themselves.
A scan of the supportive housing available in Vancouver, according to an official list published June, 2022, by BC Housing, shows there are 2,570 supportive apartments available in newer buildings and new temporary modular housing, with only 1,610 in older buildings. (The list does not include purchases of various hotels the last two years on Kingsway, Granville and East Hastings during the pandemic, nor does it count the purchase earlier this month of the Chalmers Lodge apartment building on West 12th.)
Some of the older buildings have had extensive and costly renovations done – Hotel Canada, the former Marble Arch, got $32-million worth.
A separate list from the City of Vancouver shows another 16 buildings (the city did not provide unit counts) in addition to the BC Housing list that are identified as supportive. They were all built between 1981 and 2005.
And of the 330 apartments in six projects the province has promised are coming in the next three months, one is a brand-new building, two will be new temporary modular housing and two are in older buildings being renovated. (One location has not been identified yet.) The province is spending $13-million on the modular housing and renovations, while the new building was pegged at $21-million when it was being built last year.
Carolina Ibarra is the CEO of Pacifica, whose career trajectory went from condo-strata management to seniors-housing management to the hugely complex job at Pacifica. She said she and other operators of non-profits have had struggles getting BC Housing to agree to what staffing levels are needed for each facility.
At Nikao, she said staffing is about right: “I think this model here is super effective, because it allows us to actually support people in achieving better outcomes. But we have two that are inadequately funded still.”
But the reality is that, no matter how bad some buildings are, lots of people still want in.
In Vancouver, the housing director of PHS Community Housing Society, one of the five largest non-profit providers in B.C., also says many people are not aware of the huge variation in types of buildings, types of support and management abilities among different supportive-housing projects. Or the fact that, despite the complaints of some people who refuse housing, thousands of others are lining up to get in.
“We have people clamouring to get in to the shelters every night and lots of people want to be in the SROs (single-room occupancy). They have friends there,” says Tanya Fader, the housing director for PHS Community Housing Society.
”That does get lost in the conversation.”
Special to The Globe and Mail