Homeless man sitting on a step

Campbell River, Cortes, Quadra – Cold snap impacts a house challenged population

The chill that started just before Christmas has been particularly hard on the house challenged population of Campbell River, Quadra island and Cortes island. 

Some people are living in uninsulated cabins, trailers, boats, cars and tents. 

Sue Moen – submitted photo

Campbell River Community Centre

The Campbell River emergency shelter program, which normally operates between November and March, was not available due to COVID restrictions. 

The city of Campbell River, Strathcona Regional District (SRD)  and Campbell River and District Coalition to End Homelessness have been using the Campbell River Community Centre as a shelter every night since December 24th.  

This will continue until January 3rd, after which temperatures are expected to rise above dangerous levels. 

Meanwhile preparations are underway to use one of Campbell River’s churches as an emergency shelter. 

“What we’ve seen over the last week is actually an amazing amount of resilience and bravery and independence from the unhoused population,” Sue Moen, from the Coalition to end Homelessness, told Cortes Currents.

She said the decision to use the Community Centre was made at the last minute, “so there wasn’t a lot of chance to get the word out there.”  

A lot of people from the City, SRD and various agencies gave up their holidays to set it up.

“By day three and four more people were starting to come in. We were seeing chapped hands, chilblains, they could hardly walk – their feet were so cold and aching,” said Moen. “We’ve been able to offer them 12 hours of warmth. Community people came in and donated blankets, socks, toques, gloves, hand warmers and baking.”

Some people come in for two to five hours to get warmed up and maybe have a snack. Of the 40 who used the shelter the night before our interview, about 25 slept there. 

“A lot of these folks are used to staying up all night to protect their stuff or to protect themselves and be safe or because there isn’t anywhere that they can hunker down for any length of time without being moved along or feeling exposed,” said Moen. “We know there’s still people out there.  A lot of them have been outside for a long time. They’re far enough away that they’ve been able to set up pretty decent camps. They have camp stoves, a heating source and a cooking source. So,  they are quite independent.” 

Cortes Island

Gorge Hall, on Cortes island, became a community warming center, from noon to 9:00 PM, on December 28th and 29th.

“A community warming center is a warm, cozy space to take the chill off either because one’s house is cold or because they do not have the means to get properly warm and dry.  It’s a place to sit and read a book play a game and hang out by the fire,” explained Izabelle Perry, from the Whaletown Community Club (which operates the hall.)

“The hall is definitely not equipped to be able to house people overnight. We don’t have beds, we don’t have blankets, we don’t have any of those things. And  it’s actually in our constitution to not have people stay overnight at the hall. So if we were going to change that, then there would be a whole process around it and I personally don’t think that Gorge Hall has the facilities or the space to be able to open.”

Most of the people using the warming centre were Whaletown residents, who happened upon it during the course of their day.  None of them were living in tents or their cars

“People that live in their cars or in tents may not have access to the internet, which means that  they wouldn’t have had the information in time,” said Perry. “It’s a lot easier to survive as a homeless person in a city, than it is to survive as a homeless person here. There’s no emergency shelter. There is a (Cortes) food bank, but you have to go to the other end of the island.”

While homelessness is more of a vacation season issue on Cortes Island, there are exceptions. I periodically encounter someone who has been camping out at Smelt Bay, or in Squirrel Cove, since 2017. There was also a woman camping out in the woods on the outskirts of Squirrel Cove over this Christmas cold snap. She brought a well worn suitcase, a garbage bag and a plastic tarp. Of the two people I knew were living in vehicles a year ago: one found rental accomodation and the other appears to have left the community.

Tanya Hank from the Cortes Island Women’s Resource Centre emailed “We definitely have a population living in vehicles on Cortes.”

She has also been hearing from elderly members of the community who are finding it difficult to  use outhouses or even bring firewood into their homes in this weather. 

“Injuries for the elderly take a long time to heal and they often aren’t able to fully recover putting their independence in housing options that are at risk,” said Henck.

Quadra Island

A Quadra Island resident confirmed that there are definitely people living in cars and tents on her island. 

Sue Moen said, “I have run into folks who come into Campbell River from Quadra to access services, but it’s not something we have a really good handle on. We’ve also had a couple of volunteers that weren’t able to get here. People over on Quadra have been dealing with a lot of power outages and weather issues.”

She added that a group of Quadra Island residents donated $5,000 which the coalition will use to help set up a cold weather shelter.

“There are some costs like the transportation and storage that BC housing won’t cover, but it also means that we can make sure people have warm clothing when they leave and good food and all of those kinds of things.”

Larger picture

A ‘Point in Time’ count taken in Campbell River over a 24 hour period last April listed 116 people in emergency shelters, living in encampments, or accessing community services. 

“Anecdotally, we know there are people in places like Gold River, Tahsis, Kyuquot, Quadra and Cortes who are unhoused, but it’s a challenge to find them and really get a good idea of what their needs are,” said Moen.

Fortunately, the Coalition has received the funding to launch a rural and remote homelessness count this month. Paramedics, doctors, pharmacists and others will be asked to help draw up a profile of the house challenged members of specific communities and their needs. 

Moen said she has heard ‘tons’ of stories about people living in their cars. 

“We’ve seen families in cars.” 

She talked about single women who try to park where there is traffic and lighting, but are moved along to more remote areas where they are vulnerable. 

This story is largely about people in extreme need, but in a previous interview Moen pointed out that a large segment of the population pay far more for rent than they can afford. Consequently, they have less money for other essentials like heat, food or medicine. 

According to the Provincial Health Services Authority, this would apply to about 43% of Campbell River’s rental population. 

The Strathcona Housing Needs Assessment states the 22% of the households on Quadra Island and 30% on Cortes Island are in a similar situation.

“There is not going to be a quick fix. It’s going to get worse because it’s almost 50 years now since the Federal government got out of building social housing,” said Moen. “It’s just last year that we got a national housing strategy. So at least that has happened. Certainly the province has stepped up to the plate to address the crisis in all of the quick fix ways they can, converting motels, purchasing hotels and other kinds of buildings so that people aren’t being displaced.”

Top photo credit: Homeless by Ben Osteed via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

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