What it’s like inside Greater Victoria's supportive housing

Shelby and Ross know that neighbours of the former Travelodge on Gorge Road East — the supportive housing facility where they live — are scared and frustrated. Ross understands why some residents of the neighbouring condo towers, Treelane Estate, might feel intimidated walking through the shared laneway to get to the bus stop.

“They’re pretty scared, they’re pretty upset — they, for all intents and purposes, don’t want us here, and I get that. There’s cops here all the time, there’s SWAT teams,” Ross said, referring to a spate of weapons-related calls in the past two months.

“It sucks if you’re looking at it from the outside in. If I were to own a condo over there and be in my 60s, 70s, and all of a sudden. … It’s a big change for them.”

Shelby and Ross know they’re only two people in a building of about 100, many of them struggling with complex needs, including mental-health and addiction issues, but they’re committed to being good neighbours, picking up garbage surrounding the building and doing their best to build a community for those who have long been without one.

The Times Colonist accompanied outreach workers from the Umbrella Society through the former Travelodge and the emergency shelter inside Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre and spoke to three people who hope that having a roof over their head will be the first step in their addictions recovery.

Ross and Shelby, who did not want their last names published, were renting a monthly room in the Travelodge before it was taken over by the province to house people living in tents at Topaz Park and along Pandora Avenue. They were initially evicted, but after speaking to B.C. Housing, were offered a space in the building. It is managed by the Coalition to End Homelessness and staffed by Island Health medical teams, harm-reduction teams from AVI Community Health Services and peer-support workers from the Umbrella Society, a non-profit agency that provides support for people with addictions.

Their one-bedroom apartment is tidy, lit with the warm light of a few lamps and decorated with art, wall hangings and knick-knacks that make it feel like a home. The couple is dog-sitting a Yorkshire terrier named Bebe that jumps back and forth to lick their faces.

Since moving into the building, each has received long-overdue medical care from on-site nurses and doctors. Shelby had painful abscesses in her teeth fixed and Ross has been put on anxiety medication and Dilaudid, an opioid prescribed to treat pain.

“We’re not doing illegal activities anymore,” said Ross, adding that their reliance on street drugs has dramatically reduced. “We are absolutely becoming people who are trying to make change in this building.”

Shelby and Ross have been together three years, and when Shelby, a 45-year-old mother of five, talks about how difficult it was to put up her two youngest children, now six and seven, for adoption, Ross, 38, grabs her hand to offer support.

They are part of the building’s peer witness program, a pilot project in which someone who wants to use drugs can call another resident to stay with them to make sure they don’t overdose.

The building’s safe consumption site is staffed only from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., so the peer witness can be a life-saver when people want to use drugs outside those hours.

Residents can sign up for two-week stints. The Umbrella Society disperses a stipend of $100 a week.

Ross recently put up a sign reading “Do not knock, unless it’s an emergency.” So many people were knocking on their door, they needed a day of rest.

“We 100 per cent want to be a part of the recovery of this environment,” Ross said. “As much as it sometimes scares the sh-- out of us and we block the doorway at times, but that also has taught us that we can help. Even for people just to talk to us.”

Ross would like to see a community barbecue between residents of the building and neighbours along Gorge Road East. “I would love for one day, if this [housing facility] becomes permanent, for there to be a meet and greet.

Their long-term goal is to get clean, stabilize and perhaps move into a building where they can become the resident caretakers.

Tracey is also looking to make a move. After two months of living in a 10-foot-square pod alongside 45 other people on the arena floor of the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, the 45-year-old would like some privacy.

“The only real problem I have here is sleeping at night,” said Tracey, who is an alcoholic. She said she’s usually in bed by 9 p.m., but “everything kicks off at 2 or 3 in the morning.” Theft has also been an issue, she said.

Some shelter residents have been told they could soon be moving into the former Paul’s Motor Inn, which was purchased by the province for $15 million to serve temporary supportive housing. The motel has 75 rooms, only half of which are full. Tracey said she hasn’t been given a date for when they will move.

Sipping on a melted Slurpee and wearing a white T-shirt and purple flip flops, Tracey spoke to the Times Colonist outside the arena-turned-emergency-response centre, which is being rented by B.C. Housing to provide shelter to people during the pandemic. The contract has been extended to the end of September.

Inside the arena, every sleeping pod, which is delineated by red tape on the floor, is unique. Some pods — which include a bed, bedside table and locker — are covered with tarps to provide privacy. One resident has a stuffed moose hanging from their pod. Wooden boards block off the stadium seating but an errant shoe has found its way into the penalty box.

The shelter is managed by the PHS Community Services Society and staffed by Island Health nurses and outreach teams from the Umbrella Society and AVI. Residents are provided food and laundry services.

Tracey was set to go into detox the day she spoke to the Times Colonist, but she told her outreach worker with Umbrella Society that she wasn’t ready.

“I can’t stay sober here,” said Tracey, whose 14-year-old son lives with her parents.

The last time she went into detox, she was released back to her tent in Topaz Park. She lasted a few hours before she started drinking again.

Tracey figures that once she’s in her own space, whether it’s at Paul’s Motor Inn or another hotel room, she’ll have more stability and be better able to focus on her recovery.

“These guys have bent over backward to help me,” Tracey said of the Umbrella Society outreach workers. “The workers put up with way too much.”

The Umbrella Society, which is paid by Island Health to provide outreach support, has two peer-support workers assigned to each of the former Travelodge, the former Comfort Inn on Blanshard Street and the temporary shelter at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, said Evan James, the society’s team lead.

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Evan James at the former Travelodge on Gorge Road. - DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The peer-support workers build relationships so that they’re ready to help an individual when they’re ready to talk about detox or treatment options.

“It’s just being there for them if they’re ready to make a change,” said James, who has been sober for more than a decade. His own battle with addiction helps him to connect with clients.

May and June were the deadliest months to date in B.C.’s overdose crisis, with 175 illicit drug deaths in June and 171 in May.

The overdose crisis, which was declared a public-health emergency in 2016, has underscored the need for harm-reduction services such as safe consumption sites and providing a safe supply of opioids. But Umbrella Society executive director Sharlene Law worries not enough resources are being put toward addictions recovery services.

“There’s been a lot of money put into harm reduction recently, and it’s very needed — we can’t help people if they’re not alive,” Law said. “But there’s no option for them to get out of the cycle of addiction.”

Treatment and intervention options can range from 24-hour stays in sobering and assessment beds to residential treatment lasting up to 90 days.

Those wanting treatment often face lengthy waits. For example, it takes about two weeks to get into one of the 21 adult withdrawal management beds, also called detox beds, at the Eric Martin Pavilion in Victoria, according to Island Health. (There are another 11 detox beds on the north Island.) The Comox Valley Recovery Centre has a four-week waitlist for its 11 publicly funded intensive residential treatment beds, and it can take up to three weeks to get one of the nine supportive recovery beds for women in Amethyst House in Courtenay. There are 59 adult sobering and assessment beds on the whole Island.

“When someone indicates that they’re ready to make some changes, there’s nothing immediate and that window can be really short and fleeting,” Law said.

The majority of addictions treatment centres on the Island are privately run, with costs starting at hundreds of dollars a day. Of the 76 beds at Cedars, a private addictions treatment facility in Cobble Hill,10 are publicly funded, Law said.

Many people seek treatment in publicly funded beds on the Lower Mainland, she said, which could take them away from their families. When they return from treatment, they’re distanced from the counsellors and peer-support network that facilitated their recovery.

Such “bed-based care” is only one treatment option and represents a small part of a broad continuum of care, according to the B.C. Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions. “Treatment beds are generally appropriate for people who require a higher intensity of services and supports to address complex or acute mental health and/or substance-use problems or who require a specific therapeutic care environment in a residential setting,” the ministry said in a statement.

The province recently announced funding for 50 to 70 residential treatment beds across B.C. and on Thursday announced the opening of a new, 20-bed substance-use treatment centre for young people between the ages of 13 and 18 in Chilliwack. There are also 45 additional mental-health and substance-use acute-care beds at Royal Columbian Hospital mental-health centre in the Fraser Valley, the ministry said.

In 2018, Our Place Society opened the New Roads Therapeutic Recovery Community in View Royal. It currently houses 20 men struggling with addiction who have lived on the streets or been involved with the criminal justice system. Renovations are being done on another wing of the former youth detention centre. That should allow another 24 men to access the treatment program by September, funded by donations and provincial dollars.

As the overdose crisis shows no signs of abating, Law would like to see the provincial government fund more treatment beds across the province.

“Harm reduction is completely ineffective without treatment options,” Law said. “Otherwise, we’re just keeping people in addiction.”

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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