Mary Elles’ son was living in a room at the Port Alberni Shelter Society when he learned he was to have a roommate. He didn’t take the news well, and in a fit of temper he broke a gate as he stormed out of the facility. It was his first strike.
He spent some time at the sobering centre on Fifth Avenue—also operated by PASS—but when he urinated in a garbage can and broke a window when he was told to wait his turn, it was his final strike.
It was 2016, and his behaviour, according to his mother, earned him a slot on the shelter society’s banned list.
Elles’ son has been living on the streets of Port Alberni for the past four years, and has been unable to stay in provided housing. He has been in and out of jail, and struggles with mental health and addiction issues.
The VI Free Daily has chosen not to name Elles’ son; his background is well-known among the people who provide outreach to the city’s homeless.
Elles said losing his spot at the shelter forced her son to start living in the streets. And she is at the end of her rope trying to figure out how to help him.
“My son is so bad, he’s so sick he lost the ability to do any money management,” said Elles, who has power of attorney over his financial decisions. “He’s got what they’re calling anti-social behaviour plus (he is) bi-polar. I asked him once why he doesn’t take his medication and he said ‘because it turns me into a zombie for the day.’”
She said her son doesn’t have the capacity to take responsibility for his actions, yet because he tells officials he doesn’t want them sharing information with her, she is unable to get information on his health or welfare. He is in his late 40s.
Katrina Kiefer, executive director with Canadian Mental Health Association’s Port Alberni branch, said she knows it’s difficult for parents of adult children living in challenging conditions. “We totally understand the frustration of having to advocate for someone—it’s beyond heartbreaking,” said Kiefer.
“There’s no magic wand. It’s not even a system flaw…we can’t force people. Watching someone decline service is heartbreaking.”
Elles said her son doesn’t appear to want help. But she can’t let it go. She has appealed to BC Housing to have his name put on a list for supportive housing, and he apparently agreed to a Vulnerability Assessment (VAT) interview during one of his many stints in jail, so his name is on a list with a valid VAT.
Kiefer said the VAT is a scoring system that helps outreach workers know what a person’s needs are for housing and where an ideal place would be for them. The CMHA has two or three workers who are on the streets looking for people, assessing their needs and asking if they want help. There are a number of professionals in town capable of completing a VAT for candidates, she added.
“Our homeless outreach workers are out there all the time. We ask the questions all the time, if they need something from us. We’re not counsellors. If somebody tells us they don’t want us in their face, we’re respectful.”
She did not speak specifically about Elles’ son—his identity wasn’t given away—but said there are a number of clients who are considered hard to house, and some of them don’t want to stay in housing.
“If we can help keep him alive so he can live long enough to make a different choice…there will be someone there to listen.”
And to help, if Elles’ son accepts it.
BC Housing will “attempt to meet an individual where they are and assess the individual’s needs,” a spokesperson with the provincial body said. “This approach aligns with BC Housing’s Homeless Outreach Program…BC Housing follows the Housing First model and if there is the opportunity to place an individual within the BC Housing or partner housing continuum, we will attempt to do so based on available space.”
As of Sept. 30 in Port Alberni there were 82 applicants on the Supportive Housing Registry, and 97 supportive housing units funded by BC Housing. On Vancouver Island, according to a BC Housing spokesperson, there are 2,290 supportive housing applications and 1,818 supportive housing units. Those do not include housing subsidized by other entities outside of BC Housing.
“We have an absolutely clear need for more low barrier housing in our community,” says Mayor Sharie Minions.
Municipal governments have no power to compel a shelter to accept everyone who needs a roof over their head, nor is it the Port Alberni Shelter Society’s obligation to house every single person in the community, she said.
“Our power (as a council) is advocacy and our power is in explaining the needs and reminding BC Housing and other organizations of the need.”
She said she is working behind the scenes to bring the city’s need for low barrier housing to provincial decision-makers. “There are some organizations trying to put applications in to the new federal housing fund that has come forward that has been facilitated through CHMC (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation),” she said.
“I’ve been supporting those conversations as well so any interested non-profit organization is aware that funding does exist.
“We’re hoping we will see some new housing built in our community.”
That new housing can’t come soon enough for Elles.
“We’re not supposed to give up hope; I’m not giving up hope on my son,” she said.
“What action do I take? Do I watch this person die on the street or do I ever get help? It’s been four years.”
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