Prince Rupert’s newly homeless share their struggles

Since the closure of the Neptune Motor Inn at the end of April, a number of the former tenants have literally been left out in the cold.

Since the closure of the Neptune Motor Inn at the end of April, a number of the former tenants have literally been left out in the cold.

With the community’s affordable housing stock being completely depleted, a number of people have been finding shelter wherever they can on the streets of Prince Rupert.

At the May 25 city council meeting, Coun. Joy Thorkelson said of the 14 or so people who were residing at the Neptune Motor Inn when it shut its doors, about seven have came through the Fishermen’s Hall to use its services for homeless people.  While some were able to find a relative or friend to stay with, Thorkelson said she could name at least five people sleeping in the rough.

“I honestly feel like crying when people come in and they don’t know where they’re going to sleep … What the hell do you tell them?” said Thorkelson.

“I might be upset but I get to go home, as do all of us, to a nice warm house and a nice warm bed.”

Thorkelson put much of the blame on the government and BC Housing for not providing enough subsidized housing in Prince Rupert.

But according to Donna Cairns, BC Housing senior manager of communications, in the past year the agency has increased the number of subsidized units in Prince Rupert from 439 to 472.

She also said there are currently 57 applications for subsidized housing in Prince Rupert, 31 of which are from families, 26 from singles and 14 from seniors.

Cairns said BC Housing recently met with Prince Rupert mayor and council to discuss housing and said the agency continues “to seek viable proposals for affordable housing from the community to address long-term housing needs”.

“We are working with the municipality and our housing partners to determine potential future housing options,” said Cairns, who noted 15 units were made available recently from the refurbishing of the existing housing stock.

“In the coming months, we will be looking at refurbishing additional units.”

The Prince Rupert Aboriginal Community Services Society (PRACSS) runs the federally-funded Aboriginal Homelessness program in Prince Rupert and is presently trying to manage an overwhelming caseload.

Last week, PRACSS executive director Theresa Wesley said the society has been struggling to fulfill its mandate of providing a leadership role in the implementation of the Housing First Model in the community.

“‘House the person first and then take care of everything else’. Well, we can’t even house the people. There’s nowhere to put them,” she said.

“Everywhere it’s the same. It’s all full,” said Wesley.

PRACSS has been trying to help those impacted by the Neptune’s closure, putting up three former tenants in the Moby Dick Hotel last week with leftover credit. The society also purchased new clothes for the individuals, as they were told they had to remove all of their clothing prior to their stay because of concerns related to bed bugs.

After the credit ran out, PRACSS came up with enough money to house the individuals for another two days, until Wednesday of last week.

“The only reason we were able to get these three into the Moby Dick is we used some of our dollars. But we’re running out of those dollars. We’re in crisis mode now,” said Wesley.

“We can’t leave people like this,” said Tracy Downey, PRACSS justice coordinator.

With her frustration growing, Coun. Thorkelson organized a press conference at the Fishermen’s Hall last week to allow a number of homeless individuals to share their stories.

One was William Brooks, who had lived in the Neptune for three years before it closed. His attempts to find housing have been unsuccessful.

“We’ve been trying to look for places, but they take one look at us and say no,” Brooks said, adding the rejection has made him feel worthless and depressed.

Brooks couch surfed for awhile, but said he got the feeling he overstayed his welcome at the houses of family and friends.

When Brooks ended up on the streets, it was an all-to-familiar feeling; he had been homeless previously about three years prior in the middle of winter.

“You gotta sleep with one eye open because you never know with these young kids, or even adults … as soon as you hear noise, you have to get up,” he said.

Anne Robinson and Richard White had lived in the Neptune for five years, and, before they were temporarily housed at the Moby, had been sleeping on the street for about three weeks, mainly behind the museum.

Robinson said on the first night it was pouring rain.

“We leaned against the back of the carving shed and held each other,” she said.

“He took his jacket and put it around me … but it didn’t keep me warm,” Robinson said, noting the couple remained there until the Salvation Army opened for coffee the next morning.

“The second night, we went back … we managed to get one blanket. At 2:30 in the morning we heard teenagers coming and they were all drunk. We were scared and told each other not to say anything or else they would bother us. We just kept quiet,” said Robinson.

“I’ve never cried this much before.”

The couple said they were even warned by RCMP to leave the museum property as it was considered trespassing.

Brooks, Robinson and White were all housed at the Moby last week, but had no idea what they would do on Wednesday.

“I’m still not able to sleep not knowing what’s going to happen,” said White.

Since coming to Prince Rupert from Haida Gwaii, Steven Brown said he’s slept in the rough for weeks.

“I’ve basically been walking all day and trying to figure out where I’m going to sleep at night,” he said, adding he’s either found a spot to sleep outside or in an abandoned vehicle.

Steven told media he tried to access the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter program several times, but it’s always full.

All individuals expressed their gratitude for the Salvation Army’s breakfast and lunch programs, which often provided them with the only food they would get each day.

“I wake up hungry, and hear my stomach growling,” said Brown.

During city council’s May 25 meeting, Coun. Thorkelson said the community needs to push BC Housing and the provincial and federal governments to “live up” to their housing mandates.

“(The city) can help out in some fashion, but the City of Prince Rupert’s responsibility is not to provide housing. We have land that we can help to provide housing,” she said.

Thorkelson moved council write the provincial and federal ministers responsible for housing to bring attention to the “intolerable situation” in Prince Rupert and rally government to either provide additional assisted housing units or supply enough rental subsidies to pay for the going rates of private rentals.

The motion was supported by all city councillors present.

The City of Prince Rupert began work to address the shortage of affordable housing in the community earlier this year, forming housing committees and working with community groups to get a better understanding of the current situation.

“Now we’re moving into a phase of needing to quantify what those housing needs are. We’re going to be launching a major community campaign … called the Go Plan Survey,” explained Prince Rupert Mayor Lee Brain last Monday.

For the campaign, Rupertites are being asked to provide input through a brief questionnaire related to population, housing and social cohesion. Residents are asked to fill out the survey online or through a door-to-door campaign running from June 8 to 18.

The survey is being undertaken to collect information to help quantify housing needs and provide the city will baseline data. Part of the survey will focus on affordable housing, to be filled out by people who are currently in need or perceive that they will be in a short period of time.

The information will help the city plan and make informed decisions to manage the impacts of major projects.

Additionally, Coun. Thorkelson noted the city will host an event on Fraser Street this month to promote the survey.

To access the Go Plan Survey online, visit GoPlanSurvey.com.