‘We’re at our breaking point:’ Saanich family in housing crisis

William Boggs struggling to rebuild life after sleeping in a tent for two months with family

Until July

William Boggs’ commanding stature is betrayed only by strained eyes and the subtle scent of damp clothing.

The U.S. military veteran sifts through stacks of doctors’ notes, veterans files and correspondence atop a narrow table inside Saanich South MLA Lana Popham’s constituency office while his wife, Diane, sits wearily beside him.

“We’ve been to every housing agency in Victoria,” Boggs says. “We’re phoning these agencies daily and hearing nothing. The fingers just point at the next door.”

Three months ago, the Boggs were living comfortably in a rented suite on Royal Oak Drive with their two children, Cody, 18 and Deleia, 20.

Today, they’re living in a Gorge Road motel. It’s a step up from the tent they called home for the summer months at Goldstream Provincial Park, but the family is struggling to process their financial inversion.

“Were at our breaking point,” Diane says.

The life-altering change came in July when William’s monthly disability benefits were cut from about $3,600 to $825. He was told he missed a U.S. Veterans Affairs hospital physical in Washington State and his funding was subsequently reduced.

“They were sending the notifications to my old address in Kelowna,” Boggs says. “I haven’t had to have a physical since 2010. I had no idea this was coming.”

The Boggs have since been pursuing subsidized housing through BC Housing while trying to access other sources of income.

Sgt. William Boggs was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 2002. He served overseas in Iraq, Afghanistan and at a U.S. base in Germany, according to Veterans Affairs documents provided to the News.

“My family’s all military,” says Boggs, an Oklahoma native. “Between eight of us, we’ve got almost 100 years of active duty in three generations.”

Boggs was approved to receive disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2006, an amount calculated based on injuries he sustained on active duty during his 14-year career. He moved to Canada in 2009, a decision that doesn’t impact U.S. veteran disability benefits.

Those benefits are determined by the severity of injury. Until two months ago, Boggs was receiving disability payments for “left lower extremity neurological effects,” partial paralysis of his leg and other injuries related to his spinal cord.

A letter from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in April and faxed to Boggs earlier this month stated his benefits would be reduced “because our records noted improvement in some conditions.” The letter does not elaborate.

Requests for comment from the office of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee, were not returned by deadline.

“I don’t know to this day how my pay was cut,” Boggs says. “They did this without any X-rays, any doctors’ evaluations, anything that can justify what’s happened.”

Adding to the complex situation are William’s $700 monthly child support payments, which he says can’t be reduced without going to court. Legal Aid rejected his application in August with a letter that stated his situation did not qualify.

On Wednesday, Boggs says a Veterans Affairs representative called. Boggs was told he could submit a formal appeal, but the process that will likely take months.

“I need this fixed now,” he says.

The couple filled out BC Housing’s necessary paperwork for subsidized housing in July. Since then, they’ve received little information about their status on the housing waitlist.

“I phone every morning and they just keep saying we’re top priority because we were basically homeless, living in a tent with our kids,” says Diane, a former food service worker who collects about $1,050 in Employment Insurance each month after she injured her back. She heads to Victoria General Hospital today for surgery to address her spinal stenosis, ensuring she’ll be out of work in the coming months as well.

Peter Granger, owner of the Scotsman Motel on Gorge Road East, heard about the Boggs’ plight through the Burnside Gorge Community Association and arranged a room.

Granger said it’s not the first time he’s rented to homeless individuals and families while they sit in limbo for permanent housing.

“A lot of people say they’ll only be living here temporarily and that they’re waiting for housing, but there isn’t’ enough housing for all these people,” Granger says. “As soon as they build more housing, more people migrate here. It’s never-ending.”

A fire in May at one of Victoria’s most dense affordable housing units, View Towers, displaced about 70 people and caused further strain on affordable housing availability, Granger says.

“They ate up all the available housing and it hasn’t gotten any better.”

BC Housing offered little information on the Boggs’ file, despite receiving a full privacy release form from the family.

In a statement, BC Housing Vancouver Island regional director Roger Butcher said housing priority is normally given to women and children fleeing abuse, families, youth, people with disabilities and other at-risk cases. Butcher said BC Housing and a homeless outreach provider have helped the Boggs by connecting them with Granger, and by subsidizing the motel room.

They’re also working with “a local shelter to identify and obtain appropriate long-term family housing,” he said.

Butcher was unable to provide an average family’s wait time for housing, but said a number of factors – including geographic restrictions, an applicant’s history with BC Housing and personal preferences like pets and smoking – can slow down placement.

The Boggs say they’ve offered to move anywhere between Nanaimo and Victoria where housing is available.

MLA Lana Popham and her constituency office staff have been doing what they can for the Boggs by assisting with paperwork and liaising with other community organizations.

“My office regularly works to help people in situations like this, but there are few options,” Popham said.

She said the provincial government needs to create and implement a strategy to reduce poverty. A lack of a national affordable housing strategy also contributes to the funding gap.

“Emergency shelters in Victoria are at capacity,” Popham says. “Every subsidized housing unit in the area is full – and hundreds of people are on waiting lists.”

For the Boggs, returning to a campsite isn’t an option; many of the family’s items of clothing and other possessions had to be thrown away due to mould. The couple will continue calling various housing providers in the Capital Region while pushing U.S. Veterans Affairs for an interim solution and working on an appeal.

“It’s like everyone’s looking at us saying we’re on fire, but no one’s putting the fire out,” Boggs says. “They’re just watching.”

editor@saanichnews.com

MORE: Family housing support sparse in Greater Victoria

An annual report released by the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness this week identifies a gap in “rapid re-housing initiatives” to address the needs of one-time shelter users and people dealing with temporary housing crises. The report points specifically to a rise in motel and hotel occupancy by homeless families as problematic.

Housing co-ordinator Kathy Dallman, who runs the Capital Region’s only family housing services program at the Burnside Gorge Community Association, says homeless families have few options while they sit on BC Housing’s wait list.

“There are only two family units that are shelters at Rock Bay Landing. That’s the only family shelter in all of Greater Victoria,” Dallman says. Parents often contact Dallman with the impression that low-income housing will be immediately available.

“We’ve had families waiting up to two years for that housing,” she says. “We’ve had others get in after a few months. But that rapid housing really isn’t available.”

Last year, Burnside-Gorge helped 264 families who were homeless or at-risk of homelessness. Their situations varied – some were living in their cars, others were camping, one family of six was sleeping in a one-bedroom apartment together. The majority (55 per cent) needed help avoiding eviction due to unpaid rent.

“Eleven per cent of our families were absolutely homeless, sleeping outside or in their car,” Dallman says. “That may not sound like much, but for an entire family, that’s pretty huge.”

Motel use, a stop-gap measure in the hunt for long-term affordable and low-income housing, is increasingly being accessed by necessity, Dallman says.

“We’re so thankful there are hotels and motels available in this region, because that’s actually our solution to immediate family housing right now. When families ask me when they’ll hear about permanent housing, my answer to these families is, ‘I don’t know.’ There’s just not enough buildings for the number of families on the list.”

editor@saanichnews.com