Housing

You’re 64 and you’ve spent half your life incarcerated. Where can you call home?

Capital Daily spent a year following a “lifer” as he navigated the subsidized housing system in BC

By Anna J. James
December 1, 2020
Housing

You’re 64 and you’ve spent half your life incarcerated. Where can you call home?

Capital Daily spent a year following a “lifer” as he navigated the subsidized housing system in BC

By Anna J. James
Dec 1, 2020
A man stands at the window of the Fairfield Hotel in Victoria. Photo: Rick Collins
Housing

You’re 64 and you’ve spent half your life incarcerated. Where can you call home?

Capital Daily spent a year following a “lifer” as he navigated the subsidized housing system in BC

By Anna J. James
December 1, 2020
You’re 64 and you’ve spent half your life incarcerated. Where can you call home?
A man stands at the window of the Fairfield Hotel in Victoria. Photo: Rick Collins

Since he became a free man, every day at 5am Richard Higgins sits atop his twin mattress, removes his shirt, closes his eyes, and for a few minutes, inhales the morning air. “It’s stinking hot in prison,” he told Capital Daily. Regardless of where he is living, he always takes this moment to remind himself he is free.

Higgins is a striking Sechelt Nation man, standing six-foot-two—one and a half inches owing to cuban-heeled boots. He wears a uniform of jeans, a pressed shirt, leather cowboy hat, leather jacket and, lately, a Vancouver Canucks mask. A lanyard with a swipe card to his room at the Salvation Army halfway house on Johnson Street hangs around his neck. 

He is currently on the waitlist for subsidized housing. Getting placed somewhere would mean his first stable housing since he was a teenager, but the process for getting a place is a tortuous one.

BC Housing currently funds 1,103 supportive housing units in the Capital Regional District;  almost all, 979, are in the City of Victoria. There are more supportive housing spaces but they are managed by other entities.

Being placed in subsidized housing can take years. Applicants are placed in one of five categories by “with priority based on the urgency of their housing need” according to BC Housing. A centralized housing registry is used by nonprofit organisations such as CoolAid and Our Place Society, and cooperative housing providers like Pacifica Housing, to match people with housing on either a first-come, first-served basis or based on need. 

For someone like Higgins, the list stretches out far before him. 

Life at the Grand Fentanyl Hotel

Half of Higgins’s life has been spent in housing with bars on the door. 

All in all, Higgins has spent around 32 years in correctional facilities across Canada. His longest stint was for attempted murder. He earned his latest sentence of five years for breaking his parole and driving without a licence and insurance. One of his biggest weaknesses is a short fuse. “Anger’s my issue,” he said. “I’ve been angry all my life."

Higgins has expressed remorse for his crimes and he’s cognizant of the events that led to them, starting with childhood trauma—”I left home at 14 because of the abuse in my family,” he said—and pushed along by a loose affiliation with a gang as a teenager.

Upon his release in December 2015, for his most recent stint, he moved into the Salvation Army halfway house program, which requires tenants to adhere to curfew, perform chores and be monitored around-the-clock. 

Figuring he’d spent almost 12 years collectively in halfway houses, Higgins asked his parole officer to find another place where he could live more independently. The officer found him a room at the Fairfield Hotel—a BC Housing project that is slated for closure amidst a shady history of poor conditions and allegations of mismanagement by Pacifica Housing. (When Higgins moved in, it was not managed by Pacifica.)

He told his parole officer, “You’re sending me to the Fairfield? You know who I am, right? You know what the Fairfield is, right? And you’re still sending me there?” The officer reminded him that all he had to do was adhere to his parole conditions: no drugs, no violence.

Richard Higgins. Photo: Rick Collins

Higgins felt he had only two options: accept the conditions at the Fairfield or stay in the halfway house and not move forward in life. “It was more like an ultimately—you’re going there [to Fairfield] or you’re not going anywhere.” 

Higgins, fearful of his anger issues, felt like a “ticking time bomb” living at the Fairfield, a hotbed of drama and criminal activity known on the street as The Grand Fentanyl Hotel because of the frequent overdoses.

There is a significant body of research in Canada that links unstable housing and reoffending. According to Public Safety Canada, “The absence of suitable accommodation for released offenders in the community can result in ex-prisoners being concentrated in the most problematic parts of the community where there are high rates of crime and disorder and an absence of support services.”

Capital Daily visited the Fairfield Hotel on several occasions in 2019 and witnessed a lack of onsite staff presence, and unhygienic conditions like a blood-spotted towel hanging over a heater in the hallway.

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According to Higgins, the man in the room directly above him was a methamphetamine addict who ripped up the carpet and jumped up and down on the bare floorboards at all hours of the night. “For almost three years I didn’t sleep,” said Higgins, who kept a foam mattress next to him while he sat up playing games to nap whenever the thumping paused. 

Higgins claimed he reported his upstairs neighbour to the onsite manager who, he says, told him to “go up and sort it out.” Higgins claims his room was Fairfield’s “main highway for mice.” And he lived in constant fear of reoffending. “I was very angry when I lived there,” he said. 

The noise was finally sorted, not by management but by random chance: The neighbour was hit by a car, and then relocated to another complex. The kicker? This happened right after Higgins moved out. “God has a sense of humour” he laughed. 

Bed bug heaven

Higgins had gotten a new parole officer, who he said was “very helpful” and enabled him to move to the Chelsea Apartments on View Street. “Just getting out of there [the Fairfield Hotel] put a new light on my perspective,” he said. “Even the air in there is bad.” 

For a time, he bathed in the relief of his new one-bedroom unit even though there were hygiene issues. “It’s bed bug heaven,” he said at the time he lived there. “Big silverfish are pouring out of the kitchen sink but the view is nice, and other than those two things it’s a great place.” 

While settling into his new place, Higgins began attempting to navigate a new world. He was inside for the birth of the CD, the iPhone, and Facebook, “I knew when computers were the size of a living room,” he said. Without a hint of irony, he added, “It’s true: I read it on the internet.” 

Having secured better housing, Higgins’s biggest challenge was finding a way to contribute to the community in a meaningful way. “My biggest fear used to be that I’d die alone in prison,” he said. “Now I fear being useless.” But he is giving back, working with Our Place Society’s employment agency, NEXT, to deliver Scared Straight-style presentations to schoolchildren. 

Higgins plays video games in his spare time. Photo: Rick Collins

To pass the time, Higgins played a lot of video games, and spent time with Kenny—a friend he made at Fairfield—just sitting together. For less than a week he had a kitten (he called Kitten) that he gave to a friend because he couldn’t cough up the $480 safety deposit required by the management company. He said, his voice betraying his sadness, “She was my companion. But she’s happy. She’s got a big cat to mother her now.” 

The conditions at the Chelsea, although manageable at first, started to grate on Higgins. He routinely threw out his belongings once they became infected with bugs. He was constantly itchy. Kenny and Higgins used three tubs of Vaseline to seal every nook and cranny in the apartment to block the bugs (“we were successful” Higgins said). 

He continued to move on up in the housing world. In the summer of 2020, Higgins moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Langford with a close friend he’d met at the Salvation Army halfway house (for privacy’s sake, we will call him D). It seemed like a stable solution; he thought D was also “on the straight and narrow” like Higgins.

Halfway home

At first, Higgins couldn’t believe his luck, “It was brand new. No one had ever lived in it.” He sent grainy videos of his new digs to his small circle of supportive friends. 

For a couple of months, life was good. Soon, however, Higgins said he discovered D had been using crack cocaine, and that the drugs changed him. He said D began threatening him, acting paranoid and aggressive—at one point throwing his stuff out into the hall which was saved by Kenny who by then lived in the same building. Higgins explained his own extensive rap sheet meant even a shove could earn him a lengthy sentence. 

While Higgins scrambled to find accommodation, he slept on Kenny’s sofa and at another friend’s place in the building. 

He finally found a room—back at the Salvation Army halfway house, the very first place he stayed upon his release. They staff were happy for him to return based on his record of good behaviour. He now pays $600 a month and receives three meals a day, and says he’s grateful it’s an option.

Higgins recently joined BC’s Housing Registry. Rent for a subsidized unit is calculated at 30% of the household total gross income; a single person considered “employable” can receive $9,512 a year in BC in 2020. A single person with a disability may receive $15,293, or roughly $1,274 a month in income assistance, more if they have dependents. On a modest income—a CPP benefit from his deceased wife—Higgins’s next step is narrow. 

If his application for subsidized housing is unsuccessful or takes too long, he may try the private rental market, for which in some cases BC Housing offers financial supplements. If he chooses to stay in Victoria—the only place he said he has ever felt at home—his housing options are limited. PadMapper, a company that aggregates rental listings to calculate market trends shows the median cost for a studio in Victoria is $1,400 and a 1-bedroom is $1,630, as of November 2020.

Due to his criminal record and age, Higgins’s employment options are limited and therefore, so are his housing options. It’s likely Higgins will have to rely on subsidized housing for the rest of his life.

BC Housing says over the next couple of weeks it will announce new long-term supportive housing plans for Victoria. “We know these long-term solutions will take time, which is why we have leased and purchased hundreds of rooms in hotels across the region which we are currently operating as temporary supportive housing,” explained Tim Chamberlin, a BC Housing spokesperson.

In October Mayor Helps announced plans to move 200 people indoors by the end of 2020, appealing to private home owners to rent to people in need through a BC Housing rental supplement.

So Higgins waits on the registry, and for the phone call that may one day secure him permanent housing. “I’ll always be a ‘lifer’” he said upon returning to the halfway house, “even though I’m out.” 

Regardless, every day before dawn Higgins sits on his bed, inhales the morning air, and reminds himself that he is free.

Top photo: A man stands at the window of the Fairfield Hotel in Victoria. Image credit: Rick Collins.

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