Jason Mimkowitz said he was overwhelmed when workers began to place the first of 13 small wooden cabins at the tenting site for the homeless on St. Julien Street in Duncan on Jan. 9.
Mimkowitz has been living in a tent at the site since June, and the thought of having a solid roof over his head and a heated area to live in for the first time in months as winter takes hold in the Cowichan Valley brought tears to his eyes.
He said another major advantage of the eight-by-eight structures, called sleeping cabins, is that he and the other people living at the site will have a doors that lock and a place where they can keep their belongings safe.
“I’m pretty excited,” Mimkowitz said as the cabins were being unloaded from trucks.
“Having a structure to live in is much better than tents and tarps. I’m working on trying make my life better, but I have no idea when I’ll ever have a home.”
On Jan. 11, the remaining seven of the 13 cabins, which are insulated and have baseboard heating, planned for the site were delivered, and plans are in place for another 26 of the cabins to be set up at the tenting site on Government Street known as “The Mound”, which is owned by Cowichan Tribes.
John Horn, co-chair of the COVID-19 Vulnerable Population Cowichan Task Force, said a federal grant of $310,000 from the Reaching Home Program, designed to help homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic, is paying for the installation and construction of the cabins, which is taking place in a warehouse in Chemainus.
“There will be a total of 39 cabins on those two sites,” Horn said.
“The occupants of the tent sites had a pretty cold and wet Christmas, and a couple of the tents collapsed under the weight of snow that we had [on Dec. 21]. All we could do was give them Christmas dinner and try our best to give them as much support as we could. We told them to hang in there because better days were coming soon [with the cabins].”
BC Housing and a number of other organizations announced last May that they would provide funding for the Cowichan Task Force to create temporary accommodations for the homeless in the Valley for 30 days during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
BC Housing has extended the funding to keep the sites running a number of times since then, with the current deadline scheduled for the end of March.
Originally, there were five tenting sites across the Cowichan Valley, but Horn said there are now only two, the ones where the cabins will be set up, currently in operation.
In the fall, with winter approaching, the task force began looking for funding to winterize the sites, and Ottawa stepped up with the funding for the cabins.
Horn said one of the 13 cabins at the St. Julien Street site will be set aside for use by outreach workers, staff from Island Health and security personnel.
“We are splitting the site at The Mound into two that will have 13 cabins each,” he said.
“One of those sites will be designated for young adults between 19 and 24 after outreach workers determined there are a high number of people in the age group in the community that have nowhere to go, while the other site will be for older individuals. Cowichan Tribes has also opened a seasonal emergency youth homeless shelter for those under the age of 19.”
Horn said two of the 26 cabins at The Mound will also be used by support staff and workers.
He said while the Cowichan Task Force has the funding in place to keep the sites running until March 31, there are still expected to be a number of months that need to be covered before the approximately 100 supportive housing units that are planned for people experiencing, or at risk of homelessness in the Cowichan Valley are in place, which is not expected until June or July.
Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples said she and North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring had a promise from former Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Selina Robinson that funding would be in place to bridge the gap between the end of March and when the new supportive housing units are in place so the people at the tent sites won’t have to return to the streets.
But now that David Eby has been named the new Housing Minister [which has been separated from the Ministry Municipal Affairs] Staples said she and Seabring will have to remind the new minister of the commitment from his predecessor.
“We thank BC Housing and the federal government for the funding for these tent sites, but one of our biggest concerns right now is that we’re still not receiving any funding for the people with mental health issues and addictions,” she said.
“These are the people we get all the complaints about. They are harder to house and cause the most tension in the community, but they are also the most vulnerable. They need wrap-around services but there’s huge gaps in funding and I can’t rationalize why. We’re working hard to advocate for them to the province and federal government.”