When the residents of tent city were forced to pack their belongings and move into the former Central Care Home on Johnson Street in August, Andy Bond expected the first few months would be chaotic.
Purchased by the province, the facility at 844 Johnson St. has been converted into a supportive, low-barrier housing (with a focus on harm reduction) complex that includes home-support services, two meals a day and medical staff on-site for first aid, addictions issues and health monitoring. Portland Hotel Society (PHS), the Vancouver-based non-profit organization, is tasked with managing the place.
According to Bond, senior director of housing for PHS, the facility now has the bulk of its support staff in place, consisting of four mental health care workers who are there 24-7, two home support workers who are there five days a week, a project manager, full time nurse and a physician who comes in weekly.
But more support from Island Health would be beneficial, said Bond, such as additional nursing hours, a social worker and a physician three days a week. Otherwise he believes staff have a handle on the situation and the chaos among the 147 residents is starting to calm down.
“I think people need to remember we’re only a couple months in at this point and we did take the entire population of tent city,” said Bond, noting it typically takes between six months to a year for residents who haven’t been housed in a while to settle into their new home.
“I think people were well aware of the challenges that were going on at the site (tent city) in terms of crime in the area, violence and taking a lot of people who have been homeless in some cases, five, 10, 15 years. It takes time for people to settle in and know each other.”
A man who goes by the name Smurf lived at tent city for about 10 months before he moved into the facility on Johnson Street. So far he doesn’t have any complaints about his new home and said he likes not having to worry about not having a lock on his door.
Bridget Goodwin, however, has lived at the building since it opened and said her experience thus far has been horrible.
“The people are treated like animals by the staff,” said Goodwin. “It’s not very well kept together.”
Residents living in the condo next door haven’t enjoyed the experience with their new neighbours either. Some say they’ve been harassed by people standing on the street in front of the building, the nights are often filled with screaming and other disturbances, and used needles have been found on the ground.
Karina Sacca owns a nearby business and has had food thrown at her front door, found graffiti on her stoop and drug paraphernalia, and watched people using drugs.
“It’s just changed the feeling on the street, especially when the sun starts to go down,” said Sacca, who’s pleased to see a bigger security presence at the facility, but still sees emergency responders there on a daily basis.
“It just feels like a scarier block than it used to feel like and that’s the really sad part about this situation is that it’s affecting everyone on this street.”
PHS has been meeting regularly with area residents to listen to and address their concerns. For Bond, the biggest challenge thus far has been having the tenants adjust to some sort of structure so there isn’t total chaos in the building. One of the only rules pertains to guest restrictions in the rooms.
“It’s not an open tent city where we take in enforcers to collect drug debt. Any of those things will result in a call to 911,” said Bond, adding PHS staff also meet regularly with police, trying to make sure they’re on the same page. Police are expected to release a report in the coming weeks regarding calls for service to the building.
“Things are going to come up when you deal with a lot of concentrated mental health issues and addiction.”
The Johnson Street facility is one of several properties recently purchased by the province in order to provide housing for the more than 80 people who were camped on the lawn of the Victoria courthouse for nearly a year.
Since the province shut down the homeless camp, not much has changed at the site, which still has a fence surrounding the leaf-covered property that contains a few piles of dirt.
In a written statement, a provincial spokesperson said pest control is now complete and soil testing is underway to determine the extent of remediation required. Soil sampling has been taken at six different locations at the site, and the province is still considering what the best design and future use will be.