The plight of Durwin Gordon, published by The Northern View on May 7, has shined a light on what advocates for the homeless say is a problem nearing crisis levels in Prince Rupert.
Gordon was forced to spend several nights on the street in April, but donations have since allowed him to temporarily stay at the Moby Dick Inn.
Peggy Davenport, a retired nurse who is trying to help Gordon find a permanent home, said Gordon had stayed at Raffles Inn previously, but was unable to go back after a spinal injury left him paralyzed from the waist down. He was placed at Sunset Villa on a medical stay and eventually applied for one of the BC Housing development’s two wheelchair-accessible units. According to Davenport, Gordon was denied because “he wouldn’t be able to keep the apartment clean”.
There are four wheelchair-accessible BC Housing units in the community and a spokesperson for the agency told the Northern View there was no waiting list for these units as of March 31. The agency isn’t permitted to discuss specific cases, but a representative said the Housing Registry may deny individuals a unit for a variety of reasons ranging from an unsatisfactory tenancy history or worsening their current living situation to outstanding debt to a subsidized housing provider.
Davenport claims that Gordon has run out of housing options; he depends on government assistance and is unable to find wheelchair-accessible low-cost rental properties. When hotel room donations run out, Gordon will be homeless.
And he’s not alone. Two organizations that provide emergency shelters in Prince Rupert have seen usage increase in the past year, and at maximum capacity a number of times.
The Prince Rupert Salvation Army said demand is high for the eight beds at Raffles Inn it supplies to the homeless.
“We’ve been fairly busy. I would estimate that we’re averaging about 80 per cent occupancy. Last year, it was about 50 per cent,” said Capt. Gary Sheils, noting all beds have been taken on several occasions.
The North Coast Transition Society (NCTS) provides homeless outreach services such as providing support to individuals stabilizing their lives and helping find affordable housing. The society manages and operates the Eagles Landings Apartments, setting aside eight rooms for anyone without a place to stay, two of which are wheelchair accessible. All of these units are currently in use.
Christine White, NCTA executive director, said there has been an increase in the number of people using the society’s services over the past year, with the NTCS being forced to turn away individuals because all units were in use.
White fears this trend will continue.
“The expected increase in employment will have a big effect on available rental housing and the risk of homelessness to low income clients will increase,” she said.
Capt. Sheils believes the jump is being created by people who have lost their former residences for whatever reason, noting many low-cost rentals are being snatched up by community-newcomers.
City councillor Joy Thorkelson said the lack of affordable and supportive rental units in the community needs to be addressed before the expected influx of people comes with proposed development.
“We at the Fishermen’s Hall already had three homeless people two weeks ago come down to the union hall looking for a place to stay out of the rain … because they couldn’t stay at the shelter,” she said.
“If we don’t do anything we’re going to see our community starting to look like downtown Vancouver.”
Thorkelson said non-profit housing buildings that were demolished in the community should have all been replaced by BC Housing and the government. In the past decade the province has torn down 90 affordable housing units in Prince Rupert and have rebuilt 48 since 2009: 23 for women and children and 25 for seniors.
“At the time, BC Housing determined it was not economically feasible to rebuild the same number of units in the community as they would likely continue to remain vacant,” said a BC Housing spokesperson, noting the province introduced an assistance program in 2006 to help low-income families living in private housing.
Currently, BC Housing and its housing providers have 439 subsidized units in Prince Rupert, with 37 households receiving rental supplements to keep the cost of private market rentals modest.
When asked if all units are in use, the agency said it “works with a number of non-profit housing providers in Prince Rupert” and doesn’t “have immediate access to the rental status of all their properties”.
M’akola Housing Society manages a majority of BC Housing properties in Prince Rupert, with 48 of the 332 units it administers being vacant. However, none of these are currently available to rent, with 19 being unfit to live in and 29 at various stages of the rental process or under repair.
As of March 31, there were 55 applicants on the Housing Registry waiting list.
“If someone is without shelter, they are not put on a waiting list. Housing outreach providers funded by the province will work with our housing partners to provide shelter that could include space in an emergency shelter or stable housing,” said a BC Housing representative.
“The province is working with northern communities to manage the growth expected due to resource sector activity over the next few years”.
Council passed a motion to lobby provincial and federal governments for more supportive housing in Prince Rupert, requesting a meeting to discuss what can be done.
NCTS’s housing outreach program can be contacted at 250-627-8959 ext. 24, while at-risk women and their children are encouraged to call 250-600-0793. The Salvation Army program can be reached at 250-622-7348.