The gym at the Victoria Native Friendship Centre has been used for weekly food hamper assembly ever since the centre was forced to shelve its mat program on July 1.

The 25-bed homeless shelter usually closes at the end of March each year but because of the COVID-19 pandemic and a growing tent city on Pandora Avenue, BC Housing paid to keep it open an extra three months. As that deadline approached, the centre asked for another three-month extension but was only offered one.

“If we had a three-month contract, I could have posted the positions and tried to hire more people but unfortunately with only 30 days it’s not really practical to try to hire people for that duration of time,” said Victoria Native Friendship Centre Executive Director Ron Rice.

Centre staff managed to find other accommodations for many of the residents but there were nine people left with nowhere to go. Staff raised money to get them the gear they would need to sleep on the streets.

But within just 30 hours, staff were notified that one of their male clients had died of a suspected overdose. Then a week later, they were notified of another death.

“This particular issue hit us pretty hard, there’s the sort of feeling of hopelessness and anger and a fairly good dose of guilt around what if we had just stayed open for one more month,” said Rice.

While the province has purchased hundreds of hotel rooms for homeless people in the city, there are still dozens without homes camping in places like Beacon Hill Park. This latest closure means even more are now on the streets.

“There are 40 tent encampments right now across the province, some as a result of people being displaced because of the pandemic, I get that people are upset about that and angry about that, I’m upset and angry too,” said Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps.

Reeling from the loss of two of its clients, the Native Friendship Centre says it’s going to be reevaluating whether a seasonal shelter is the best use of its resources.

“It’s a fairly loose band-aid and a fairly big gash,” said Rice.

Rice says we need to do more, including more housing, more year-round sheltering, and more programs, to try to really address this complex issue and prevent more loss.

April Lawrence