Housing

Supportive housing at Mount Edwards has not destroyed its neighbourhood, four years later

As plans are implemented across the CRD to house people, can the integration of Mount Edwards be used as a template?

By Josh Kozelj
May 6, 2021
Housing

Supportive housing at Mount Edwards has not destroyed its neighbourhood, four years later

As plans are implemented across the CRD to house people, can the integration of Mount Edwards be used as a template?

By Josh Kozelj
May 6, 2021
Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily
Housing

Supportive housing at Mount Edwards has not destroyed its neighbourhood, four years later

As plans are implemented across the CRD to house people, can the integration of Mount Edwards be used as a template?

By Josh Kozelj
May 6, 2021
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Supportive housing at Mount Edwards has not destroyed its neighbourhood, four years later
Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

In the basement of Mount Edwards Court, stacks of salmon fillets rest on a glossy silver countertop. A salty fish smell wafts in the air. Yesterday was spaghetti night; today, salmon burgers are on the menu for the 76 residents of the seniors supportive home.

Christine O’Brien, manager of Mount Edwards Court, skirts around the periphery of the kitchen, hoping to avoid the temptation of freshly baked cookies or brownies. Luckily, for day three of her healthy eating diet, the baked goods aren’t prepared yet.

One floor up from the basement, residents go about their day.

Soft rock hums from a radio, while conversations echo throughout the halls. Paper mache hearts, synonymous with the unifying effort during the COVID-19 pandemic, are scattered throughout the walls. Outside in a fenced yard, one man smokes a cigarette alone with a baby blue medical mask dangling around his chin.

Further outside the boundaries of Mount Edwards Court, locals in the Vancouver Street neighbourhood are going about their Friday. It’s a little before noon and as construction noise blares from the bike lane project a few blocks away, a man struggles to move a pair of boxes into his new apartment.

It is, in other words, an ordinary day in a pleasant part of Victoria.

But less than five years ago, Mount Edwards was clouded in controversy as community members, city councillors, and housing advocates dug in on their respective approaches to combat the issue of homelessness in the city. Letters flew in the Times Colonist over fears it would “disrupt an entire community.”

Today, some things have changed. A deadly drug supply is ravaging street-involved communities out in the open while it kills more quietly indoors; COVID-19 has upended the shelter system as we know it and forced people to take shelter outdoors at even greater rates than the ongoing housing crisis has; and housing prices have shot up so fast even the well-heeled find themselves struggling to get a roof over their heads.

But one thing remains the same: many people remain fearful of big social housing developments that could bring potentially volatile new people into their neighbourhoods.

“It’s very consistent that when BC Housing announces a new supportive housing development, the immediate neighbours are very concerned,” Attorney General and Minister for Housing David Eby told Capital Daily. “People will say, ‘We can support housing for seniors, but we can’t support housing for people who used to be homeless or who are at risk of experiencing homelessness.’”

That precise sentiment is echoed in many parts of Greater Victoria as BC Housing moves unhoused people out of tents and into hotels and apartment buildings across the city.

Downtown isn’t the only place that’s being affected; quieter neighbourhoods are also being asked to share the task of housing people with challenges that are currently preventing them from finding their own place to live. And just like Mount Edwards, some fears and hopes may prove to be more realistic than others.

***

The movement between tents and social housing has a long and dynamic history, with a recent flashpoint in 2015. Citing safety concerns over the tent city that was erected on the lawn of the BC Parliament Buildings that fall, the provincial government initially tried to file an injunction to remove the roughly 100 campers—but was rejected by the BC Supreme Court.

Next, the province sought out options to house the campers. That resulted in the purchase of three buildings, including Mount Edwards Court—a former extended-care home—for $3.65 million, and the province was granted an injunction to shut down the tent city in the summer of 2016.

Kathy Stinson, CEO of the Victoria Cool Aid Society, says plans for the Mount Edwards project started as the tent city started to grow and BC Housing sought housing solutions for the campers.

“There ended up being quite a bit of controversy,” Stinson said of the neighbours’ reaction to the initial plan. “Primarily because of its proximity to the tent city, and folks were really concerned about some of the challenges when a large tent encampment grows and transfers to any buildings where people that were living in that camp move to.”

They planned to fill a majority of the 38 units of Mount Edwards Court with people living in the tent camp outside the courthouse. Many wondered about the safety of their neighbours, seniors, and children—especially considering the building is located directly across the street from Christ Church Cathedral, a kindergarten to Grade 8 school.

“My initial concerns, well they were fairly obvious: we are a school and they were not more than 25 metres away from us,” said Stuart Hall, Christ Church Cathedral’s head of school.

“At the time, [then-housing minister Rich] Coleman wanted to put tent city, to pick it up lock, stock, and barrel… and put them into single residence units in Mount Edwards Court right next to the school. That would have been, in my view, a real disaster because what was going on at tent city at the time was a pretty tough scene. The police were there; there was drug use, violence.”

Christ Church Catheral sits beside Mount Edwards Court, a seniors supportive home on Vancouver Street.
Christ Church Cathedral, a kindergarten to Grade 8 school, sits directly across the street from Mount Edwards Court. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

Originally, Stinson says, 40 people moved into Mount Edwards from the tent city. However, after meetings with BC Housing, Christ Church Cathedral, and other community members, plans formed to refocus the building as a seniors’ social housing home.

But even after the decision to convert the facility to a 55 or older home with staff on site 24/7, people signed up to speak against the rezoning application at a Victoria public council meeting in 2017.

Victoria councillors approved the project despite the opposition.

“At the end of the day, whether people are under 55 or over 55, the challenges and strengths they bring are all very similar,” Stinson said. “It is about creating a community and providing that level of respect for people within the building, and helping them understand how important it is to respect the neighbourhood as well.”

***

Four years later, plans from the province in March 2021 to build 192 units of supportive housing for homeless people around Victoria have been met with similar angst from locals.

The City of Victoria reported there were about 200 unsheltered people living in the city two months ago. The 192 units are being built in addition to temporary facilities to house folks living in city parks.

David Eby, the attorney general and minister responsible for housing, said the permanent shelters would provide the quick response Victorians have been asking the city to take toward homelessness, which has become more visible during the pandemic in places like Beacon Hill Park and smaller parks throughout the city.

“People wanted their parks back,” Eby told the Times Colonist.

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In a press release, the province said an experienced housing provider will be chosen to operate the houses and give resources including daily meals, employment assistance, and physical and mental health resources.

The locations, at 959 and 953 Balmoral Rd., 1176 Yates St., 1053 and 1075 Meares St., and 865 Catherine St. are scheduled to be completed by next summer.

The government plans to fast-track the supportive housing projects, which would avoid public hearings and council approval, leaving locals feeling steamrolled.

“We would have liked BC Housing to talk with us and not just talk at us,” Tiffany Baur, an admin of the Facebook group “Vic West Together - Neighbours Creating Safe and Supportive Community” said in an email to Capital Daily.

“We have basically been told, ‘This is happening and you don’t have a say so suck it up.’”

***

Baur and other members of the Vic West Together Facebook group say they aren’t against supportive housing.  

“Every decent person, regardless of their issues with illegal substances, is deserving of a home,” Baur said. “Our main concern is that BC Housing will turn Vic West into the new Burnside Gorge.”

Burnside Gorge has seen a rise in crime and complaints from neighbours, and the province is closing one of its short-term shelters at the Travelodge in response.

“I know there are buildings that have not been as successful as others,” Eby told Capital Daily. “The best example of that I have is the supportive housing we have at the Travelodge in Burnside.” Eby says, however, that for every highly publicized example of a project that turns out badly, there are a dozen others that work—quietly—like Mount Edwards.

A BC Housing report from 2019 showed supportive housing tends to do what it’s meant to do: 94% of residents remained housed after six months, and more than half said they had improved access to employment. Property values in the areas immediately surrounding the sites, meanwhile, stayed consistent with prices elsewhere or even surpassed them.

Less than half of residents, however, said they saw improvement in addiction issues, pointing to a need for wraparound support.

Trees in the courtyard of Mount Edwards Court in Victoria, British Columbia.
An aerial view of Mount Edwards Court. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

Amanda Allan, another admin of the Facebook group, said she isn’t concerned with new residents moving into the neighbourhood. Instead, she worries whether the folks coming into the Catherine Street location will receive the addiction, mental health, and health-care support they are promised as part of the plan.

Allan also said she has no issues with BC Housing keeping their plans private until after the land was purchased—that’s fairly common in real estate, she says, since the owner of the property could find themselves under pressure from neighbours not to sell, especially in instances where supportive housing is involved.

What she would like to see is BC Housing embrace the 2018 Victoria West Neighbourhood Plan, which outlines measures on how to add housing, support local jobs and business, and connect communities in the city.

Specifically, the first key point of the plan calls for shops and villages in a variety of neighbourhoods including Catherine Street to bolster communal gathering.

“Imagine how well it could work if there was a coffee shop or other not-for-profit business on the main floor of the building, where residents who were ready could have the opportunity to gain employment experience,” Allan said.

But the fear of consultation extends past this specific housing plan.

A protest on Monday sought to raise awareness of neighbours’ concerns around plans to build supportive housing at 1909 Prosser Rd. in Central Saanich. In a Facebook group opposing the plan, the stated reasons for opposition include worries that newly housed people will be “sharing [a] city bus stop with seniors and students,” and, “there will be much more clean up required in public areas and parks.”

The municipality rezoned 1909 Prosser Rd. in 2018 from an agricultural zone to a multi-family residential zone.

When asked on the Capital Daily podcast earlier this week if the consultation process came too late, Central Saanich Mayor Ryan Windsor said if BC Housing sells the units at below market level rent, then the agency will have satisfied the legal terms of the contract—and that’s more or less the limit of the municipality’s jurisdiction.

“In terms of our public process, the municipality has no authority,” Windsor said. “I’ve delved into this to see if there’s anything we can do, or should do, and the answer is ‘no’ in terms of our process—other than to receive letters to the mayor and council, which all along we’ve said we’re doing.”

While who exactly will be moving into 1909 Prosser Rd. is still unknown, Windsor said he is aware that private Facebook groups had been started by locals to trade unverified information. He cautions that there is a lot of misinformation spreading, and encourages those people to reach out to council and the provincial government directly.

“There is a lot of speculation in the community,” he said. “Where there is a vacuum of information or lack of information, people will speculate”

Earlier this year, about 50 people gathered outside a Vic West building after plans were announced to use it as a homeless shelter as part of the ongoing work to bring everyone from parks into shelter by the end of April.

At the protest, some neighbours said there should have been more discussion before a decision was made on the Russell Street location. Since the shelter has been operating, though, both Baur and Allan expressed gratitude for Our Place for their transparency.

Not everyone in Vic West has concerns with the unhoused residents.

One community member, who wished to remain anonymous, was unhoused for four years in the early 2000s in Victoria and currently lives in a Vic West home. Knowing the struggles of being homeless, she says, it can be dehumanizing and dangerous.

“When I was homeless in Victoria, people spat on you, people threw their coffee on you. You had to be careful on weekends because you’d wake up and some drunk dude [would be] pissing on you.”

While she agrees that BC Housing could improve its public engagement, she said housed folks should question why they feel the need to ask personal questions about those who are unhoused.

“Because these people are homeless, housed residents feel an entitlement to know about them, put a magnifying glass on them,” she said.

Ultimately, she hopes the unhoused folks on Catherine Street will have harm reduction services such as overdose prevention, and housed neighbours recognize the culture shift it takes to move into a home.

“Imagine sleeping outside for 10, 15, 20 years,” she said. “Being sleep deprived, malnourished, you’re typically carrying trauma… Shifting to a self-care model, from survive to thrive, takes time.”

***

The crude realities of housing were often on display in the beginning at Mount Edwards Court. O’Brien, who has worked with Cool Aid for over 20 years and began as manager of Mount Edwards in December, says neighbours were cautious and skeptical of the social housing community.

“We actually had some [neighbours] who would sit and videotape the staff,” O’Brien said.  

Robert Jarvis, a support care worker at Mount Edwards, says it was mainly the parents of children who went to Christ Church who were opposed to the building at first.

“They expressed that in public hearings. Full credit to city council and BC Housing for convincing folks to give us a shot,” Jarvis said. “It was up to us to show that we could be a part of this community, a part of this neighbourhood, and over the past four years we have.”

Seniors supportive home, Mount Edwards Court on Vancouver Street in Victoria, British Columbia.
Despite being clouded in controversy five years ago, Mount Edwards Court has since solidified its place in the neighbourhood. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

Hall said the school, in the end, expressed a desire to have older residents living across the street.

“Absolutely we support housing for people that are homeless, and how can we make it work?” Hall said.

“Addiction is a journey and a challenge. I don’t profess to be an expert on addiction, but it’s fairly obvious when someone is young and using a lot of hard drugs they are volatile compared to someone who’s been around for awhile, and manages themselves a bit better… All those people need help, but to put the former next to a school seemed not to be the wisest thing to do.”  

According to BC Housing, 210 supportive housing sites are near a school, more than half of which have been operating for a decade or more.

It was decided that residents of Mount Edwards would be 55 or older with low to moderate support needs, and would go through a screening process before being accepted into the home. That’s not what is being proposed for the new supportive housing units across the city, where some residents have said they would accept older residents or drug-free buildings.

***

While Mount Edwards underwent a negotiation process that involved meetings and public hearings for community members to be heard, the proposed units today are moving straight into the construction phase as talks with neighbours proceed.

“We’ve heard a lot from BC Housing about how well things have gone at Mount Edwards Court,” Allan said. But she doesn’t know what kind of tenants will be moving into Catherine Street.

“All we have been told by BC Housing about the potential residents on Catherine is that they will be ‘stabilized’ in a temporary shelter before moving in.”

Communication helped the Mount Edwards project integrate into the Vancouver Street neighbourhood, and Stinson said publishing on-site phone numbers and emails of senior leadership can be helpful for neighbours who want to connect. When Mount Edwards first began, Hall said they had communication with leaders of the housing project about once a week—eventually fading to fewer meetups as the years went on. Today, he calls the meetups “opportunistic” rather than intentional, showing how the lack of problems has contributed to a positive environment.

“The fact that there haven’t been major issues could also be a reason why we haven’t carried on with as many opportunities to sit on in their meetings,” Hall said.

To reciprocate the neighbourly relationship, Hall remembers a time when the school received donated rugs they couldn’t use, and he walked across the street to offer them to Mount Edwards. However, prior to COVID-19 restrictions, one of the biggest unifiers was food.

Whenever they had a surplus of pizza or Subway sandwiches, they’d call up their neighbours right next door.

Due to pandemic restrictions, O’Brien says it’s been hard on residents to not be able to interact over events like dinner—especially since they just installed a new kitchen in the basement, and the smell of food fills the building in the afternoon.

“I wish I made this meeting later,” O’Brien says halfway through our interview. “Roast beef day is insane.”

Before the new kitchen, meals were delivered and had to be reheated, and O’Brien can’t wait for COVID to be over so residents can experience the pleasures of dining together.

If anything has been learned through Christ Church Cathedral sharing surplus food with Mount Edwards, it’s that sometimes the best way to get to know someone is through shared meals.

Tonight, salmon burgers may be served in takeout containers for residents at Mount Edwards, but someday in the future, perhaps, the prepped meals will make their way across the street.  

“Between strangers sometimes there’s distrust,” Hall said. “There’s nothing that knocks distrust aside like sharing food.”

Correction made on May 6 at 1:30 pm: A previous version of this article referred to the 2016-17 tent city as having taken place on the legislature lawn. The encampment took place on the lawn of the courthouse.

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