No shelter in the Westshore even with growing need

The communities between Victoria and Sooke offer little help for people experiencing homelessness

Homelessness is more visible in Victoria, but there are many people in the Westshore who are unhoused. (📸 James MacDonald)

For the 38 kilometres between Sooke and Victoria, there is nowhere for people experiencing homelessness to stay overnight, even when the temperature drops below freezing.

Colwood resident Deidre Moran spent much of last year trying to make progress towards a cold weather shelter for the Westshore. She’d been aware for a while that there was nowhere for people to go without heading downtown, and during last winter’s cold snap she decided to do something about it.

In March she started talking with non-profit organizations in Victoria, Colwood staff, and other concerned neighbours to find out how to make it happen..

She attended emergency response meetings, talked with the Salvation Army, the Coalition to End Homelessness, and the Justice Van. She thought they could at least get a temporary cold weather shelter ready for the following winter. She asked city staff for guidance, and tried to find a suitable location. She connected with researchers at Royal Roads who were looking at various economic solutions.

“Ultimately, we found that space and resourcing were challenges too great for me to keep pounding away at,” she said. “Given what I'd heard and understood, maybe the idea is too early here.”

Precise numbers lacking, but there's no doubt people need help in the Westshore

Estimates of how many people live in the Westshore without stable housing vary, with bylaw officers and community service providers keeping their own counts. With no central place to congregate for services or shelter, people without homes in the Westshore tend to keep hidden. People camp in the bush, live discreetly in vehicles, or bounce from couch to couch. The 2020 “point in time” count, a survey that tries to get an accurate estimate of how many people are unsheltered in the Capital Regional District, included the Westshore and Sooke, but only nominally analyzed differences between downtown and the suburbs.

Even without an official number, service workers know there are many people in need in the Westshore, however hidden they may be.

“The need is huge. I have 21 people waiting on my list for shelter beds right now, with service people phoning me daily looking for places for other people,” said Kristie Miller who manages the Sooke shelter. But she has nothing for them. The 20 supportive housing spaces above the shelter in the Hope Centre are full, and the six emergency shelter beds are still under construction, expected to be open this spring.

“Their next best bet would be the city. We are the only shelter on this side of Victoria,” Miller said.

In Langford, bylaw manager Lorne Fletcher says his team knows at least six people by name who live in tents, but knows there are many more people who live in vehicles or couch surf.

Five years ago in a decommissioned youth prison in View Royal, 70 people made homes in the converted space, run by Our Place Society. It was a temporary solution to the 2016 tent city protest in front of the Victoria Courthouse. Two years later residents were moved downtown Victoria into the Tally-Ho hotel on Douglas Street, which was purchased by the province to be a shelter that was run by Cool Aid Society. The old youth jail was converted to a recovery centre that now houses about 40 men in a peer-based recovery program.

Around that time is when Sherry Thompson noticed more people sleeping in alcoves around Sooke. She started the Sooke Shelter Society as a cold weather emergency protocol in 2017. It evolved into a partnership between M’akola Housing Society and BC Housing providing long-term supportive housing, and will soon have a badly needed resource centre to provide some wraparound care to people at risk of, or already experiencing, homelessness.

'If you build it they will fill it'

In View Royal an ad hoc encampment beside the Trans-Canada Highway was broken up last year, at the request of the town which cited safety concerns for its firefighters. Not long after, View Royal started working on a bylaw to prohibit camping in all but two parks—and then it added a stipulation for a 100-metre buffer from any footpath, essentially making every park off limits. Council sent the bylaw proposal back to staff after the implication was made public. An adjusted bylaw is expected this year.

In Langford, overnight camping is permitted with exceptions. Fletcher said most people who chose to camp overnight go to Danbrook Park, which is allowed because there’s no infrastructure for children there. During the recent cold snap, he says Langford bylaw officers let eight people stay camped during the day to keep warm—otherwise they’re required to pack up each morning.

Our Place spokesperson Grant McKenzie agreed there’s a need in the Westshore, but wonders if people would use a shelter if it were built.

“What we find is, a lot of the people who are under the bridges and hiding in the bushes tend to be people who are isolating because of shame, stigma, or addiction. A lot of times, especially for men, it seems that when they get into a certain position, there's embarrassment or stigma. They're kind of like wounded bears, and they hide away,” he said.

“So I think there's a good possibility that a shelter could work for the Westshore. On the other hand, if you look at the shelter in Sooke, there’s a need, but it's not necessarily being used a lot because a lot of the homeless people in Sooke are out in the woods, or are hiding away. It's always difficult to know: Is the need there for shelter? Or if you open the shelter, would it show the need?”

Miller emphatically disagreed with that assessment.

“The year we became permanent, we went from 98 clients to 210 clients. We've seen an over 100% increase in just about one year,” she said.

“You build it, they will fill it.”

What gets missed, even in a good point in time count, is all the people who are at risk of homelessness. Miller pointed to rising rent, inflation, and exacerbated mental health needs. The median rent in Langford doubled between 2008 and 2018, according to its 2021 Housing Needs Report.

Further west in Shirley and Jordan River, Miller knows there are a good number of people living in the woods, often because they feel safer there than in downtown Victoria—especially for people who aren’t suffering from mental health challenges or serious addiction.

Despite the need, there doesn’t seem to be anyone working on establishing an overnight shelter between Victoria and Sooke.

In the summer when View Royal started working on its camping bylaw, Coun. Damian Kowalewich took the moment to call for a shelter on the Westshore: “Part and parcel with the economy the way it's going, this is an issue that is going nowhere. It's gonna be around for a long time, probably getting worse, and it’s something I’d like you to put your minds to—including myself,” he said in a July council meeting. Kowalewich has not responded to our request for an interview.