B.C.’s housing minister says a new shelter on Russell Street in Vic West will undergo a review after a resident allegedly set fire to a nearby dumpster, which spread to a commercial building and caused extensive damage to a nearby property.
David Eby said the allegations are disturbing and there will be a review to see if anything could have been done to prevent the fire. The Russell Street shelter, which opened just this month, was purchased by BC Housing on behalf of the province and is being operated by the Our Place Society.
Our Place has since evicted the person accused of starting the fire.
“I absolutely understand why the service provider is upset, why the neighbours would be upset about this incident and these allegations that this individual was involved,” Eby told CHEK News on Monday.
“Anytime someone’s alleged to be involved in criminal activity who has a connection to a BC Housing facility, it’s a cause for concern and a review to make sure that we’re doing all we can.”
Neighbours in Vic West have expressed concern about crime and safety since BC Housing first announced it was purchasing the site and planning to renovate it in early April.
“In some respects this is a realization of some people’s worst fears about what could happen,” said Justine Semmens, president of the Vic West Community Association.
“It’s been really frustrating for residents along Russell that their concerns have not been heard and the province and BC Housing have dismissed some of their concerns as maybe NIMBYism (not in my backyard).”
Semmens slammed BC Housing for failing to hold meaningful consultation and for not establishing working relationships with local residents or community groups, saying the virtual meetings offered to date have not been true dialogue and that, since the fire, she’s been in touch with Victoria Police and Our Place but can’t even get BC Housing to return her calls.
Eby said, despite all measures, sometimes shelter operators are often dependent on police to respond when a crime is actually committed.
“One of the ways that we’re responding to be able to proactively address neighbour concerns is to set up a community advisory committee for this building,” he said.
The new committee will bring together local who live nearby the Vic West site with BC Housing, and be moderated by the site operator, said Eby.
“They can bring forward concerns early about any kind of issues that need to be addressed,” said Eby.
“And that group can work with BC Housing and if necessary with police or with other emergency health services to make sure that people get the support they need to succeed in the housing.”
That committee has been promised since March, said Semmens. She’s hopeful the fire may actually spark its creation, because the community would like to work with the shelter to make improvements that will tap into what Semmens said is support among locals to make the project work.
She said the main problem remains BC Housing, which despite its immense resources leaves the on-the-ground relationship building to other groups to figure out without its participation. That’s meant police, nearby residents and Our Place f0rm their lines of communication, after BC Housing swoops in to set the rules and disappears, she said.
The fire has overshadowed what is otherwise positive progress on the issue of shelter spaces for the unhoused in the city.
BC Housing has offered 214 of 220 people living outside a spot at an indoor shelter, with that number rising even more tonight when the Tiny Homes project reaches max capacity at Royal Athletic Park.
The City of Victoria has ended a grace period on enforcing its 24/7 camping bylaw, now that all the provincial shelter spaces have opened. City staff removed almost two dozen tents and structures over the weekend from local parks, and estimates only 30 remain in all Victoria-area parks. That’s down from a high of 100 structures at the start of May.
“That’s an exciting milestone,” said Eby. “But it’s just the beginning of our journey and I think these recent incidents underline the importance of the complex care work that we have yet to do around people with serious mental health and addiction issues, to make sure that they’re supported and can succeed with housing.”