Shelter protest leads to arrest

Karly Blats, October 30, 2020

Graham Hughes has led the protest outside of the Port Alberni Shelter Society's residential units for the last week. On Friday he was arrested and later released. (Eric Plummer photo)

Port Alberni, BC — 

Over the past week, a protest at the Port Alberni shelter has continued to evolve with one arrest being made early Friday morning, according to social media posts.

A protest began last Friday, Oct. 23 by Port Alberni’s Graham Hughes, who says he won’t stop fighting for change until members of the Port Alberni Shelty Society (PASS) board of directors resign and an investigation is conducted into a broad range of allegations against the society.

Advocates, supporters and members of Port Alberni’s homeless community have been gathering outside Our Home on Eighth since last Friday, sharing stories and calling for systemic change within the shelter society. Several tents remain erected on a grassy area beside the shelter as of Oct. 30 and supporters continue to protest in solidarity with Hughes, who was arrested but has since been released.

The Port Alberni RCMP have not responded to a request for comment.

In addition to numerous allegations against the shelter society, that operates the multi-service shelter, a sobering site on Fifth Avenue and a harm reduction facility on Third Avenue, Hughes says he’s protesting for justice for his sister. 

Hughes’ sister Jessica died seven years ago. She was staying at the Port Alberni shelter at the time and when she began experiencing a medical emergency. Hughes alleges that staff were delayed in calling an ambulance. Eventually a staff member did call an ambulance and Jessica was transferred to the ICU. She died five days later.

Hughes said an investigation into his sister’s death never happened and seven years later he only has more questions than answers.

“I asked for an investigation into (Jessica’s death) earlier this year. I got an affidavit that was actually evidence of it, but still didn’t hear anything back,” Hughes said outside the shelter on Eighth Avenue where he’s been camping for a week.

Protestors are calling for a list of banned ex-shelter residents to be reviewed and the creation of an appeal process for those who are banned. 

On a banned list that Hughes was given anonymously, more than 100 names are listed with reasons for being banned that range from sexual assault, violence, threatening staff and drug dealing to being unable to follow rules, clogging a shower, mental health issues or just not welcome. Some names have “for life” beside them. 

Wes Hewitt, executive director of the Port Alberni Shelter Society, said himself or the other board members aren’t able to speak to media about the protest or any of the allegations because it’s going to litigation. 

He did say policies in place at the shelter are per WorkSafeBC standards and are for the safety of the residents and staff.

“I wish we could take everybody but we can’t,” Hewitt said. “We’re working with the city and other partners in the community to try and work something out so that those people are looked after.”

The shelter provides 30 supportive housing units, 23 emergency shelter beds, one family unit and 15 extreme weather beds. According to the society’s website they also offer a variety of supports and services that empower individuals towards self-sufficiency and a sense of belonging within the community.

The society’s mission statement includes aiming to be a “model for compassion and acceptance of everyone regardless of their circumstances, create a safe environment of mutual respect for each other and maintain a welcoming environment where residents feel at home.”