British Columbia

Addiction, homelessness increasingly visible in Victoria, say support groups

Victoria support groups that say there are noticeably more drug users on the streets than there were a couple of years ago. Local businesses say they're concerned.

Growing numbers highlight need for more shelter space, advocates say, as tension with local businesses rises

Support groups in Victoria say there are visibly more drug users and homeless people on Victoria streets than there were a few years ago. (Deborah Wilson/CBC)

Alana says she's been addicted to heroin for over a year after succumbing to depression. She sleeps on Pandora Street in downtown Victoria, outside Our Place Society, a support centre for people experiencing homelessness.

There are "too many people and not enough beds to sleep on" in the shelter, says Alana, who asked that her real name be withheld. 

She says she doesn't stay at local shelters because they're overflowing with people, bed bugs and head lice.

But on the street, other drug users steal her valuables, defecate in public, and bully her for being kind. 

But through all the hardship she said it's important that drug users stick together to be safe. 

"In seconds your life could change …You could be dead," she said of the dangers of overdosing. 

She was speaking in light of numerous city groups saying there are noticeably more drug users on the streets — who are experiencing homelessness, addiction and other problems — than there were a couple of years ago. It's highlighting a need for more shelters, advocates say, and increasing tensions with local businesses.

Alana says she's been a heroin addict for over a year and now lives on the street. (Deborah Wilson/CBC)

More drug users on the streets

Grant McKenzie, director of communications at Our Place Society, told CBC's On The Island last week there are now 60 to 80 people regularly huddled outside the centre, as well as outside of Victoria's safe consumption site and other services where "they feel safest."

Don McTavish, of the Cool Aid housing society, said he's "thankful there hasn't been a tent city" but he's seen more users on the streets due to the warm weather, the lack of affordable housing, and the opioid crisis. 

He said the city's safe injection site is visibly drawing out more people.

"[They're] afraid to use alone and are afraid of getting some tainted drugs, and they don't want to pass away," he said.

Dominicus Anamacha, who describes himself as a priest, said he's a recovering heroin addict and has been using Our Place's services for nearly three years. He said he's experienced 153 overdoses in the past year.

"So many of us are now here because we have to be," he said, standing outside the centre. "This is where the drop-in is. This is where the shelter is." 

Anamacha said supportive housing like the Johnson Street building, which offers 140 rooms for homeless people, doesn't have enough space to house everyone. He added that police routinely wake people sleeping on the street early in the morning to tell them to pack up their belongings.

Increase in complaints from businesses

Pointing to the businesses across the street, Anamacha said many of their owners will "call and complain" if people camp on the grass in front of their buildings.

McKenzie said Our Place has seen "a dramatic increase in the number of complaints" from the public "just because of the visibility" of drug users and homeless people.

"They actually prefer it when people are in back alleys … but people were dying in those situations," he explained.

Dominicus Anamacha, a recovering addict, says businesses in the Pandora Street area often complain when people camp on the grass in front of their buildings. (Deborah Wilson/CBC)

"The vast majority of [business owners] are very compassionate individuals," said Jeff Bray, executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association. "[But] the frustration you might be hearing, that's a legitimate response."

He said homeless services need to be decentralized from the downtown area to lessen the negative impact on local businesses. 

More shelters needed

McKenzie said there are definitely not enough shelters in Victoria.

"We need space either to build a shelter or [for] others to take over a building … where we can house more people."

For Alana, part of the solution is for the public to "put aside their differences" and learn to be respectful of people in her situation.

"The hatred people have for users, and the disgusted looks I get now — it's unbelievable," she said through tears.

About the Author

Adam van der Zwan is a journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. You can send him a news tip at adam.van.der.zwan@cbc.ca.

With files from Deborah Wilson and CBC's On The Island