British Columbia

Hopelessness and hope: Vancouver Island's Cowichan Valley grapples with housing crisis

The number of people who are homeless in towns and villages in the region north of Victoria has jumped by more than 50 per cent in just three years.

'Along with warm, dry, safe, there should be some light at the end of the tunnel,' says housing manager

A recent survey conducted for the Cowichan Valley Regional District showed the homeless population there has spiked by more than 50 percent in just three years. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Randy Minnie of Duncan, B.C., never imagined he would need to stay at a homeless shelter.

But a year ago, Minnie, 52, was hit by a car and his injuries left him unable to work.

Shortly after that, the house he was living in was demolished so the property could be redeveloped.

"It left me on the streets for a while and then I ended up here," he said.

After a year of couch surfing and camping, Minnie has a roof over his head again.

He is living in one of 24 transitional housing units at Warmland House in Duncan — all of which are full. The units are self-contained studio apartments in the same building as a shelter.

Bearing brunt of crisis

The Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island stretches from just north of Victoria to Ladysmith and is home to 85,000 people in a mix of towns and villages.

A recent survey conducted for the Cowichan Valley Regional District showed the homeless population there has spiked by more than 50 percent in just three years.

Almost 90 people were found to be living on the streets this past summer, compared with 58 in 2014.

Duncan, with a population of nearly 5,000, is the largest urban centre in the region, and it's bearing the brunt of the crisis with a growing number of people living outside in makeshift camps.

There were approximately 73 homeless in the city last year. Another 71 were deemed to be hidden homeless because they are either couch surfing, living in a motel or staying at Warmland.

"The camps move based on the weather, based on a number of different factors," said Dave Street, the general manager at Warmland House.

Response to a tragedy

Operated by the Cowichan Valley branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, the facility offers 30 shelter beds in addition to the 24 housing units on a nightly basis, and more when the weather turns extreme.

Warmland also provides laundry facilities, meals, and everything else that goes along with a mandate of safe, warm and dry.

"People do fall on hard times whether that be through some sort of addiction, whether that be through some bad choices, whether that just be life and circumstances," Street said.

"Any one of us is one poor decision away from a life change."

Randy Minnie of Duncan, B.C., fell into homelessness after he was hit by a car and couldn't work due to his injuries. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Warmland opened nearly a decade ago over a growing concern about the safety of people living on the streets of Duncan.

"There was a very tragic incident a number of years ago," Street says.

"There was a couple of individuals, vulnerable street folks, who perished in a fire…I think that was the tipping point at which the community began to rally behind this."

But nearly a decade later, the need has stretched beyond the services available.

'Lots of people couch surfing'

Duncan United Church minister Rev. Keith Simmonds is acutely aware of the concerning trend on the streets of Duncan.

The region is feeling the impact of the opioid crisis, but rents have also been rising and welfare rates haven't kept pace, Simmonds said.

Warmland Housing manager David Mitchell, left, and general manager Dave Street, right, say all 24 apartments like this one at the facility are full. (Megan Thomas)

"Lots of people couch surfing, lots of people who are marginally housed," he said.

He noted that about 12,000 households in the valley pay more than 50 per cent of their income for housing, "so any bump in rental rates or mortgage rates creates a very precarious situation."

Tensions rising

Despite the rising need, tensions have been running high in recent weeks over plans to add more shelter services.

Simmonds was part of a proposal to open a warming centre using existing facilities at a local Duncan park. Then there was another plan for an emergency shelter for women in an old school.

Both were met with stiff opposition from neighbours worried about the safety of children at a preschool that is also located in the park.

Duncan United Church in downtown Duncan serves thousands of meals to people in need each year. (Megan Thomas)

"I think the community feels it is in crisis. It just doesn't know how to respond," Simmonds said.

While there is friction in the community around how to respond to the crisis, Simmonds says there is a growing recognition of the need to respond.

Limited capacity

Various social agencies have recently joined forces to form the new Cowichan Coalition to Address Homelessness and Affordable Housing.

Terri Dame with the Cowichan Housing Association has been tracking the housing squeeze.

"We don't have the level of resources that larger communities have. It's been a lot of work for us over the past 10 years just to build that capacity," Dame said.

Rev. Keith Simmonds, the minister at Duncan United Church, has watched the number of people living on the streets grow in recent years. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

To have enough affordable housing, the Cowichan Valley needs about 750 more rental units.

The new provincial government has said housing is a top priority, and it has been offering funds for modular housing units that can be set up quickly.

But Dame says to receive those funds, communities have to be on board.

"[The housing] went to communities where local government was a partner at the table and had contributed property and dollars."

'Not a transient issue'

Dame hopes research and data will help local governments in the region respond.

A proposal to turn a former school in Duncan into an emergency shelter has faced stiff opposition because there is a preschool next door. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

She noted the majority of the people with nowhere to go have been residents of the region for at least five years.

"It's not a transient issue. It's not an issue of people coming in from larger centres," she said. 

"It's our community members who are without homes."

Housing first

Back at Warmland House, housing manger David Mitchell opens the door to one of the dorm rooms.

Inside there are tidy bunk beds and lockers.

The dorms are part of a continuum of housing that helps people move from the street to eventually renting their own place.

It's a system that works to get people back on their feet, Mitchell says.

But in Duncan right now there are more people to help than there are shelter beds, dorms and apartments.

"We deal in hopelessness. People come in here in a hopeless situation. Everything is broken," Mitchell says.

"Along with warm, dry, safe, there should be some light at the end of the tunnel."

About the Author

Megan Thomas


Megan Thomas is a reporter for CBC in Victoria, B.C. She covers stories from around Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast. Follow her on Twitter @meganTcbc.