British Columbia

Seasonal shelter in Victoria urges more action on homelessness after deaths

The Native Friendship Centre, which operates as a seasonal shelter, says two of its winter guests died days after its shelter services were shuttered on July 1.

Director of Native Friendship Centre says two of its guests died after shelter closed on July 1

Rice says the Native Friendship Centre's seasonal shelter normally opens in the fall and closes at the beginning of April. This year, because of the pandemic, the shelter's operation was extended until July 1. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

The executive director of Victoria's Native Friendship Centre says his staff are reeling after two guests at the centre — which operates as a seasonal shelter — died within days of the shelter shutting down for the season.

Ron Rice says it's been an exceptionally difficult time. 

"There's certainly a lot of anger and hopelessness and a big dose of guilt. If we had stayed open for one more month, would this have happened?" Rice said to host Kathryn Marlow on CBC's All Points West

"I don't feel like we're doing enough. I'm not pointing fingers at anyone in the system … but I just feel hopeless."

Rice says the centre is a designated seasonal shelter that can provide temporary overnight housing for 25 people. It opens in the fall and closes at the beginning of April. This year, because of the pandemic, the shelter's operation was extended until July 1. 

He says it was generally the same group who stayed at the shelter over the past few months, ranging from 10 to 20 people. Because they were considered housed, they were not among those people given hotel rooms as a shelter solution.

Rice says about nine people ended up on the streets after the July 1 closure. One of those people died within 30 hours of the closure from an overdose, and another died nine or 10 days later from an incident of violence, he says. 

Problem in need of creative solution

He says while there's been admirable work done during the pandemic by BC Housing, the City of Victoria, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, and others to secure housing for the region's most vulnerable, he says this is a decades-long problem.

"That is encouraging … but why do we need a global pandemic to unite this way?" 

Rice says it's time to push further for more creative solutions and make sure people have a home, not just shelter.

"We need to look at this chaos happening around us and find an opportunity to try some new things," he said.

"It's time that we make some big changes for ourselves and find some people who are willing to try with us."

With files from All Points West

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