Graham Hughes says he is going to sleep outside the Port Alberni Shelter (Our Home on Eighth) until executive director Wes Hewitt and three other employees resign.
Hughes recently ran as an independent candidate for Mid Island-Pacific Rim riding in the B.C. provincial election on a social advocacy platform. He spent much of his campaigning time protesting the way homelessness is dealt with in Port Alberni, and was outside the shelter on election night. Josie Osborne (BC NDP) is the projected winner of the riding (mail-in ballots still need to be counted).
“We have to stay here,” Hughes said Friday, Oct. 25, when he first began his protest. “We’ve been trying to reach people through this opioid crisis and the problem is people are so spread out because no one is welcome anywhere,” he claimed. “We need to have a place where people know they can come and get help and that they know there are services that can help them. As you start learning more and more about the situation…policy can bar everyone from services…
“In solidarity we just have to show up and say we’re aware, we’re here and we’re just not taking it anymore.”
People stopped to speak with Hughes, sharing stories of their own experiences with the shelter’s various entities and offering him encouragement. One of those people was former shelter employee Laura Tourangeau, who worked at the shelter from August 2017 to January 2018. Tourangeau sent a letter in April 2019 to municipal and provincial officials listing a number of concerns she had from her time working at the shelter.
By Friday night Hughes and three others had erected an open-sided tent in the parking area in front of the shelter and sat around a propane heater to keep warm. By Sunday half a dozen people were at the site and two tents were erected on the edge of the grass beside the main tent. Volunteers were bringing hot drinks and food to those sitting outside.
Hughes said some of the people who spent the night with him outside were people barred from using the shelter. He provided a “barred list” from March 2016 that included names of people who were not welcome at the shelter, saying it is proof that services have been denied to people.
Hewitt said services are restricted to people who violate shelter rules.
“Under the Workers’ Compensation Act you have to be supplying a safe worksite for your employees. If you get individuals that assault employees or pose a threat, we can’t work with them,” he said.
“Our rules that are in place are basically boundaries. You can’t damage the building, you can’t damage the workers and you can’t damage other clients. If you can stay within those boundaries you’re welcome.”
Hewitt said people are not restricted “forever,” although the barred list from March 2016 had “for life” beside several names.
“That restricted list is reviewed by committee; it’s not us that reviews the restricted list.”
He said representatives from Canadian Mental Health Association and the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council “regularly” review the list, “it’s not us.”
Among many accusations directed at the shelter verbally and via social media, Hughes has said there is no oversight for the programs the shelter is running. Hewitt disputed that claim. “We follow a fairly strict operating agreement with BC Housing and our other sites that are Island Health sites, same thing. Financially, we are audited—we hire an external auditor every year. As well, Island Health and BC Housing have their own auditors.”
Rumours were swirling that an emergency meeting was called between the city, local First Nations and PA Shelter Society to discuss the sit-in, but that wasn’t the case, City of Port Alberni CAO Tim Pley said Saturday night. A meeting was already planned between the groups later this week to discuss another matter. Pley didn’t know whether the sit-in would be added to the agenda.
Hughes said Sunday evening he hoped a meeting with BC Housing will happen on Monday, Oct. 26. He didn’t have confirmation of any such meeting though.
Hughes has also started a petition on change.org asking for an investigation “into the broad range of allegations against Westerly (sic) Hewitt and John Douglas and the Port Alberni Shelter Society.” As of Monday, Oct. 26 he had almost 250 signatures.
The Port Alberni Shelter Society has provided housing, services and support to people experiencing homelessness in the Alberni Valley since 1972. The society includes an emergency shelter, low barrier housing, a sobering centre, overdose prevention site and the Shelter Farm.
Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.