By Emelie Peacock
Special to The Standard
While a sigh of relief can be breathed for the people residing at Hope’s only emergency shelter as it will be allowed to keep operating for at least another two years, those living in the bush outside the town centre won’t see much relief on the immediate horizon.
So said Gerry Dyble, executive director of the Hope and Area Transition Society (HATS) which runs the district’s emergency shelter as a contractor for BC Housing. At a Sept. 27 meeting, council unanimously passed a motion allowing the House of Hope shelter to continue operating at 650 Old Hope Princeton Way for another two years. The motion also allows the operator to add another structure such as a Britco trailer on the site, to accommodate an emergency warming or cooling shelter for people facing homelessness.
The reason this motion was needed is because the property along Old Hope Princeton Way, owned by BC Housing, is not zoned for shelter use. Last year, BC Housing underwent a rezoning process to have the shelter and a 52-unit supportive housing building housed on the site. After extensive public hearings, the rezoning was defeated in November with five councillors voting in opposition (Bob Erikson, Heather Stewin, Victor Smith and Craig Traun), one in support (Scott Medlock) and one abstention (Dusty Smith). This ‘no’ vote by council also put the shelter operation at risk.
While the extension is good news for Dyble, the need far outstrips the 27 spaces the shelter and a local motel are currently providing. “Both locations are full to capacity and we’re turning people away,” Dyble said. The shelter was at 95 per cent capacity this summer, which is high for summer months said shelter manager Brian Dodd. Since January the shelter has had to turn away around 20 people per month.
There are also people who don’t sleep at the shelter but access its other facilities each month: around 40 to 50 people come in for a shower, around 250 meals are served and washrooms are in constant use.
While Hope residents may witness some of those who are facing homelessness, Dyble said the problem is so dire that people are sleeping in tents, trailers, motorhomes and other temporary shelters just out of sight, in the bush up the Skagit and Coquihalla. “So what happens, is because it’s not right in your face in Hope, the community doesn’t see it,” she said. “But if you took a drive, not very far up the Skagit, you would see our tent city.”
HATS outreach staff and Dyble herself meet with and hear the stories of people living in these situations. One example she shared is a couple who lost their home and now live in the bush, and even though they work in town they cannot find a place to live.
“The homeless outreach team…are seeing people on the streets and saying ‘Here’s a sandwich and a water and I’m sorry we have no housing,” she said. “It’s beyond the scope of what we do when it comes to homeless outreach, we have no options for people to go and stay at.”
COVID-19 has exacerbated the lack of housing in what was already a very low vacancy housing market prior to the pandemic Dyble said. Hope Mayor Peter Robb estimates the vacancy rate is now less than 1 per cent and perhaps even closer to zero, which is lower than Vancouver’s 2.6 per cent and Chilliwack’s 1.5 per cent 2020 rates.
“More and more seniors are being evicted,” Dyble said, recounting the story of a 73-year-old senior citizen who had been living in Hope for three years and was last week sleeping in his car outside of the HATS office. Robb met and talked to a senior living at the shelter who informed him there are many other seniors in these situations, without family in Hope. “It’s hard to get a true sense if they’re from our community or not, and I didn’t push that issue. Regardless it’s still seniors that are homeless and it’s heartbreaking to hear some of their stories,” he said.
The Trans Mountain Expansion Project, which has brought a big economic boost to businesses in Hope, has also exacerbated the town’s already dire housing situation. Speaking as a private landlord, Dyble said she was offered double what her suite would normally go for to rent to pipeline employees when she put it out for rent this summer. Dyble decided to go with a local tenant, she said. At the prices pipeline employees can rent for, local tenants wouldn’t be able to compete she added, “folks who have jobs in Hope, typically can’t pay $3,000 for rent.”
Robb indicated that a camp housing pipeline workers at Laidlaw is set to expand according to an update he received from the company, which could ease the pressure on the local housing market. The Trans Mountain Expansion Project did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Another knock-on effect of the housing situation in Hope is the inability for local businesses to find local workers. HATS is facing this same pressure Dyble said, which will only increase as the organization prepares to start the extreme weather program and is looking to hire six new people for it.
The municipality is very limited in what it can do on the housing issue Robb said. Advocating and putting pressure on the province is one route they are pursuing, and according to Robb all B.C. communities are in the same situation. They are all looking for more funding and more federal and provincial support for housing.
Not being heavy-handed with enforcing certain bylaws regarding people camping outside or living in trailers in driveways is another route the district is going. While some neighbours are upset about the lack of enforcement Robb said, “we are really stuck for housing so what do you do? We just let it go for now,” and ask neighbours to be patient. “We’re turning a blind eye to some of the violations because we have to show some compassion here. Come on people, they need some help and that’s the best we can do right now.”
“There’s just no easy solution to the whole chain there with housing and support. And of course the whole opioid crisis is still in full bloom, the numbers don’t go down, they just slowly rise every month,” Robb added, citing another related crisis affecting the town.
Hope is one of five BC communities with the highest rates of death by illicit drug toxicity according to the BC Coroners Service, with three deaths in Hope between January and April of 2021.