Heavy November rains have made living outdoors an even bigger challenge for those experiencing homelessness. Victoria’s Our Place Society helped dozens of people dry out and get warm after Monday’s storm. (Photo courtesy Grant McKenzie/Our Place Society)

Heavy November rains have made living outdoors an even bigger challenge for those experiencing homelessness. Victoria’s Our Place Society helped dozens of people dry out and get warm after Monday’s storm. (Photo courtesy Grant McKenzie/Our Place Society)

Record rain, pandemic staffing, mental health issues compound on Victoria’s homeless

Monday’s storm exposed gaps in support system for those facing homelessness

The recent heavy rains offered a good illustration of the value of Our Place Society to the community of people experiencing homelessness.

Helping people get warm and dry is something the Pandora Avenue facility does on a regular basis through the fall and winter months, but the torrential rains that came Nov. 14 and 15 left the downtown street community desperate to find relief.

Grant McKenzie, the society’s director of communications, saw many flock to the showers on the Monday in an effort to warm up as the centre opened at 6:30 a.m.

The focus was to get people out of soaked clothing and into warmer wear to try and ward off illness spurring from being out in inclement conditions.

People then huddled around heaters as their dripping tents and sleeping bags dried over railings.

“That was the main thing, just getting people out of that wet weather,” McKenzie said the following day.

The society faces a shortage of towels, but also needs socks, underwear, rain gear and anything that can help keep people dry. McKenzie said getting almost 500 people into housing over the last 20 months helped them have the capacity to support those who remained unsheltered.

READ: Atmospheric river behind record rain and flooding in Greater Victoria

The province funds non-profits to run Extreme Weather Response (EWR) shelters during inclement conditions. Earlier this month, the province announced that groups could access funding for the overnight centres from Oct. 1 – a month earlier than usual – to March 31.

But staffing shortages, like those facing many sectors, are posing challenges for non-profits trying to deliver those services, said Nina Grossman, communications coordinator for the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness.

On days with bad weather in the forecast, the coalition makes a decision by 11 a.m. on whether the extreme weather response needs to be activated. But this year, it first has to check if a site has the staffing to allow it to open for the night.

The downtown Salvation Army ARC is currently the only EWR site in Victoria, but it wasn’t open as the rain fell Sunday night.

“Staffing has become very difficult and it’s hard to find to find people who are able to take on this type of work,” Grossman said, adding they hope prospective staff want to create safe and compassionate spaces for those experiencing homelessness.

The Salvation Army had a good hiring week, Grossman said, so it will be able to open for the next harsh weather event. According to its website, the Salvation Army is able to add 30 mats during extreme weather response scenarios.

Victoria is also finalizing a warming centre program that “would be open during the day to fill gaps in the existing extreme weather response protocol” said city head of engagement Bill Eisenhauer. Work to confirm locations, funding details and staffing for the centres is ongoing.

Grossman noted that days such as Nov. 15 are “extremely cold, extremely windy, extremely wet and nobody should have to live outside in those conditions if they don’t want to.”

With winter approaching, the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions said in a statement it’s working with a host of stakeholders “to understand how to best care for and house people with the most complex mental health and substance use challenges.”

Even as more housing spaces open for the city’s homeless, many are reluctant to take them, Our Place’s McKenzie said. Those individuals – especially young women – have suffered abuse and trauma that contributes to mental health and substance use issues, making them wary of the system, he said. The complexity of those issues means addressing homelessness in Victoria will take empathy and more mental health supports, McKenzie said.

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