Students embrace new shelter across the street

Central Middle School Principal Topher Macintosh said students are welcoming their new neighbours across the street.

The decision to open a temporary homeless shelter at the former Boys and Girls Club on Yates Street was met with much opposition from neighbours and parents of children attending a nearby school.

But one month after the shelter (My Place Transitional Home) opened its doors to 40 campers from Victoria’s tent city, Central Middle School Principal Topher Macintosh said things are going smoothly and students are welcoming their new neighbours across the street.

According to Macintosh, three classes are working on projects to engage those staying at the shelter. One of those projects is a traditional aboriginal welcome song. Another class is making dinner to take over and be served, and other students, already making small lunches for staff, want to do the same for residents of My Place.

“The adults were all worried about it but the kids thought there’s a need here so let’s see what we can learn,” said Macintosh. “The students and the staff of the school are embracing it. They are really working now to make it a great learning experience.”

Run by Our Place Society, My Place opened its doors the first week of January, bringing five to six people per day to the gymnasium lined with tents. Staffed around the clock, the shelter will remain open until April 30, offering showers, a place to store personal belongings, daily meals, a TV room, music room, computer room and library.

Three people have now managed to find their own housing.

Our Place spokesperson Grant McKenzie said it’s difficult to determine whether more will do the same since many people coming to the shelter are at the lowest point they’ve ever been.

“A big part of our job is to try and get them back to normal. Some people we have to start off with an energy drink for breakfast. They haven’t been eating solid meals and we have to build up their strength so they can move onto soup and a sandwich,” said McKenzie, adding the shelter has a wait list of 45 people.

“I think as they hear about it, they learn it’s not an institution, it’s a place that sets up to help them. They worry they’ll be judged or made to change their ways. We always believe in meeting people where they are at and we know that to get further ahead in life, addiction isn’t going to get you there.”

Staff at the shelter have been working to build trust with the new residents. Part of that involves working with the Umbrella Society to get some people into counselling and detox. As people get healthier, some have begun helping out with chores around the facility, such as cooking meals.

Outside, staff pick up garbage and make sure needles aren’t scattered across the ground. Overall, McKenzie believes the whole process is going extremely well.

“We’re certainly not encouraging drug use but we know that people are active in their addiction and we don’t want them out in the community. We’d rather have them in a safe place where we can keep an eye on them,” he said. “You’re trying to build that little microcosm community,

Across the street, the school has ground crews sweep the property every morning for any debris. So far, Macintosh said one needle has been found, which is typical even without a shelter across the street. A night time commissionaire has also been hired to help lock up of building and give custodians peace of mind.

The school district, however, estimates it could face sudden and unplanned costs of $43,950 over the next four months as a result of the shelter. The province and school board are now arguing over who should cover the costs.

“Those are very real costs. I am happy to do it, but it’s been many hours of my time and various support people’s time,” said Macintosh, who isn’t surprised by the positive response from students and staff.

“I think it’s fantastic. Central has a huge heart. As a school we have a real history of fundraising for causes and groups so I knew that pretty quickly after we settled into this, provided it was going well and it has been, that our minds were just going to shift to that.”

Outreach workers from various community agencies continue to work with the remaining campers at tent city, which is estimated to be around 80 people. The provincial government (which owns the land) has issued a letter to the campers, encouraging them to find alternate shelter due to an increasing number of health and safety concerns. The campers, however, said they aren’t going anywhere.