A collection of 20 tiny homes is nearly complete to house people in Port Alberni’s poorest neighbourhood, and the facility’s operator hopes to have them ready this summer.
Finishing touches are being put on the living units within the Walyaqil Tiny Shelter Village, which is being operated by the Port Alberni Friendship Center with funding for at least two years secured from the provincial government. The friendship centre hopes that people can move into the units by the end of July, as staff will be ready to manage the site by the middle of the month, but an office building still needs to be assembled. Like the 20 living units, the office panels are being built in the Vancouver area before they are sent to the village’s Fourth Avenue location for assembly.
Using a word from the Nuu-chah-nulth language that means ‘to be at home’, Walyaqil offers 20 eight-by-12-foot insulated units, equipped with heating and air conditioning. With a painting by Mowachaht/Muchalaht artist Patrick Amos on the wall, each unit offers a bed, small fridge and table. Bathrooms and showers are available in a separate building on the site.
Cyndi Stevens, executive director of the Port Alberni Friendship Center, said that the units are about eight feet apart, mitigating the spread of fire.
“One of the reasons these units took so long to build is because we hired an architect and had inspections to make sure that they’re safe, specifically around fire,” she said, adding that much of the components are fireproof, and windows are kept small to prevent the spread of a blaze. “We would have loved to have them bigger, but they’re smaller to keep the fire contained.”
The homes have been developed by the local friendship centre, which is working in partnership with the City of Port Alberni, BC Housing and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The city bought the land for the units to be erected, leasing the site to the Port Alberni Friendship Center.
This arrangement developed amid concerns over a collection of trailers sitting next to Walyaqil, old RVs owned by Randy Brown, who has a local property management company and the next-door Wintergreen Apartments. Citing bylaw contraventions and safety concerns, city council passed a remedial action requirement in November 2020 for the trailers to be removed, but they have remained as Port Alberni struggles with a housing shortage. Accommodation in the trailers has been rented for $375-500 a month, but Brown has committed to removing them once the tiny home village is available to his tenants.
At least two people have been killed in the Wintergreen Apartments over the last year, one fatally stabbed in December, the other dying in a fire in May that also displaced 14 others. Many residents of the building remain without a home.
Stevens said that staff will be at Walyaqil around the clock, working to keep residents safe.
“All of our team members will be supporting each unit to make sure that each unit is safe,” she said. “They’ll be doing checks on them quite frequently. We won’t be allowing anything with fire in each unit.”
Just one person will be permitted to spend the night in a unit, and guests must leave by 10 p.m., noted Stevens. The overall aim is to provide people with a supportive transition in their living situation.
“There’s always going to be this need of transitioning,” said Stevens. “We’re not going to just be a place for them to live, we’re also going to be a place that offers education, support, counselling, cultural support, food and all of that. It’s really about transitioning them to the next phase.”
While new, safer homes are coming to Port Alberni, the community continues to be “ground zero” of British Columbia’s opioid crisis, says MP Gord Johns. He reported that last year Port Alberni saw an overdose fatality rate that was double what occurred across the Island Health region.
“Between the ages of 19 and 44, we’re almost five times the provincial average of toxic drug deaths - in the worst province for toxic drug deaths per capita in the country,” he said. “In Port Alberni there’s no detox. You have to go to Nanaimo to get detox, and then you have to wait, and then there’s a massive gap between detox and treatment. More often than not, treatment is in Maple Ridge.”
The Walyaqil site can accommodate 10 more living units, but funding is needed for this expansion. On July 4 Carolyn Bennett, Canada’s minister of Mental Health and Addictions, visited the site to assess how it will help the overdose crisis’ toll on Port Alberni’s homeless community.
“All of the friendship centres across the country would love to be able to do something like this for First Nations, Inuit, Métis living in urban centres,” she observed.
Many affected by the issue have questioned why a detox facility isn’t available in Port Alberni, but Bennett responded to say that a complex variety of supports are needed to stop more deaths.
“Quite often, the 28-day program hasn’t worked. People need longer programs,” she said. “We are building the kinds of puzzle pieces that fit in so that every jurisdiction can do what they know they need to do.”
Earlier this year Bennett took part in announcing that B.C. is the first province to be granted an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, decriminalizing the possession of small quantities of illicit drugs.
“I think that we’re trying to teach people that this is trauma-informed approach,” she said. “Certain people have to numb themselves out of the pain, whether it was child abuse, or they fell off a roof and then got cut off their meds and went to the street for their drugs. People require our love and our care, and not jail.”