As campers prepare to be evicted from the tent city more than 100 have been calling home for months in nearby Victoria, Salt Spring Island is braced for the possibility that some of them will head their way, placing strain on thin resources carefully deployed.
There are a lot of transient people living rough here. On a per-capita basis, this idyllic island has the highest rate of housing insecurity in the region. Earlier this month, Salt Spring Island Community Services (SSICS) conducted a census of the homeless people on the largest of the Gulf islands. The number of those living rough or in places not intended for permanent human habitation is 70.
Jordan Lessick, the SSICS housing first co-ordinator who headed the study, is certain that the actual number is closer to 100 but with either result, the survey shows that at 0.7 per cent, the island has a disproportionate number of homeless. It is a per-capita rate more than double that of Vancouver and one that is 50 per cent higher than nearby Victoria.
"I'm not inflating any numbers, but I also know that the problem is more than that," Mr. Lessick says.
Salt Spring boasts mild weather and large parks close to town, and living on the streets here isn't as harsh as it can be elsewhere. A well-stocked food bank and free daily community meals help with the basics. Even the emergency shelter is accommodating. SSICS only gets funding for the shelter to be open during lousy weather. Regardless, it welcomes the homeless seven nights a week, with staff like Mr. Lessick scrambling to find community funding to cover the short fall. "We try to house people whatever way we can," he says.
Funding dollars from other levels of government tend to go to the biggest cities, not a semi-rural Gulf island.
And while Salt Spring is perhaps more welcoming to the homeless than other places, it is wary of a new influx of people needing hard-to-find housing.
Peter Grove is a trustee of the Islands Trust and is particularly concerned about what might happen once the tent city in Victoria is evicted. Campers were ordered out by Thursday, but as that deadline approached, police and the province declared they'd prefer people leave voluntarily for shelters as opposed to a forced eviction.
"What is a bit hard to swallow is we understand that the police in Victoria give homeless people a ticket to come to Salt Spring …because they want to get rid of them from their jurisdiction and send them somewhere else," said Mr. Grove.
Bowen Osoko, a spokesman for the Victoria Police Department, flatly denied the charge.
"I do know that VicPD members have purchased travel tickets for people to get home – like [Constable Andre Almeida] putting down his own personal credit card to get a woman with dementia back to her family – but we do not send homeless people to other places," Mr. Osoko wrote in an e-mail.
While easy availability of food and shelter are signs of a community eager to address short-term need, the chances of finding longer-term solutions are daunting.
Island homes are expensive and so is property. There are no apartment buildings. Rental suites are usually available to locals only during the winter; in the busy summer months, the suites are rented at much higher rates to tourists. Exacting zoning rules make it hard to build affordable low-cost housing and there are multiple other constraints. An 80-unit social-housing complex is on hold because the local water district will not allow new hook-ups to the water system.
With the island's existing 17 social-housing units full, Mr. Lessick says the SSICS agency is forced to consider unorthodox solutions. That includes the possibility of building tiny homes, less than 100 square feet, because they fly below the radar of zoning rules. Agency workers are exploring the purchase of a trailer to house two men who have been living in a car, although finding somewhere to park it will be a challenge. And while it's not an ideal solution, living on boats is another way of dealing with a housing shortage that can't seem to get fixed any other way.
Behind a row of townhouses, the plot of land Chester Ludlow calls home is surrounded by a tangled hedge. That is just as well, since it provides him some privacy whenever nature calls and he heads outside to relieve himself behind a tree. For $200 a month, he lives in a wooden shack. Inside there's a table, three chairs, a wood stove and a bunk bed.
At night this patch of land is eerie: an edgy, abandoned part of what much of Canada thinks of as an island paradise. But this is where Mr. Ludlow, 62, starts and ends every day. There's no electricity or running water, no toilet and no cooking options except for a petroleum-jelly stove in a can. When it gets dark, Mr. Ludlow, a father of two and a former contractor who is now on a disability pension, lights a candle and comforts himself that it could be worse.
"I consider myself blessed," he says in a rich baritone between reflective draws on a handmade cigarette. Although he has lived on the island for decades, the death of his spouse, a mortgage foreclosure and injury means that for the past 2 1/2 years he's been eking out an existence.
"I used to only have a tent, so it's been worse," he says, "but with a bit of help it could be better."
Mr. Ludlow endorses the housing-first strategy Mr. Lessick is trying to launch. The idea is that the best way to help restore people is by providing the hard-to-house a home. After that, social service agencies can offer supports.
"Those we can help are at a point in their lives that they are ready to be helped," says Mr. Lessick. "They are able to do some of the work themselves because we can't do it all. Sometimes there are really nice success stories."
But that success can be elusive. The fact that the absolute numbers of homeless on the island are such that it might be possible to remember the names of each transient person doesn't make the issue any easier for a community of just 10,500 to deal with.
Leah Griffiths prefers to be called a buccaneer rather than a pirate. She lives on the 28-foot Sara-Jean, a fibreglass sailing boat she bought three years ago that is anchored in the unofficially named Squalor Bay.
Her floating community is a collection of a few dozen stained and peeling vessels moored in the south western part of Ganges harbour. While some of her neighbours self-identify as pirates, Ms. Griffiths doesn't like the taint of thievery associated with the name. She works a few hours a week in town which is enough to cover her monthly costs of $500. Her commuter vessel is a baby-blue dinghy, smaller than most bathtubs. Her home before moving onto the water was in a Ganges park.
"I gave up a tent, a boyfriend and a dog to come out here," she says with the loud chuckle that punctuates much of her conversation.
Ms. Griffiths doesn't think of herself as homeless even though according to the census she is living in a place "not intended for permanent human habitation."
Mr. Lessick noted boats aren't good long-term housing options but in the short term he calls them "loopholes."
They are a practical way to navigate the rules, restrictions and high cost of living on Salt Spring.