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Shelter residents worry as BC Housing seeks new operator in Port Alberni

Select tender issued for new service provider at Our Home on Eighth
BC Housing won’t be renewing the Port Alberni Shelter Society’s contract to operate Our Home on Eighth shelter. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

The elevator doors in the lobby at Our Home on Eighth Shelter open slowly, and Don Braiden wheels his electric wheelchair deftly across the floor to the office, looking for the nurse who buzzed his room. It’s time for Braiden to take some medication, and the nurse sorts him out.

Braiden has been living in the shelter in Port Alberni since it was located across the street, before Our Home opened in 2019. He suffered a stroke almost three years ago, and now needs the wheelchair to help him get around: he cannot walk anymore.

Yet, when Braiden heard the news that BC Housing has terminated Port Alberni Shelter Society’s contract to operate Our Home, his first concern was not for himself.

“My main concern is for people (in administration),” he said. Some of the employees are non-union, and Braiden and other residents feel their jobs are on the line.

“My main concern is with the changeover…they’ve been here a long time and they know what they’re doing. They do a good job around here.”

Braiden has been a client of the shelter for “a long time,” he said. “I lived in the old shelter and moved over here. They treat me good here.”

He isn’t concerned about his own housing, saying he’s better off at the shelter than he would be in any other type of housing. He is also the only person using a wheelchair who also lives at the shelter, he said.

Braiden said he was surprised to hear that BC Housing terminated PASS’s contract to operate the shelter. “I have a lot of respect for Wes (executive director Wes Hewitt); he’s done a lot here. I have a lot of respect for all the staff here…They do a wonderful job. Most of them have been here for a long time.”

Belinda Gardener is also worried about what a new operator will bring to Our Home on Eighth.

“It was a complete surprise. It was kind of thrown at us,” said Gardener, who lives in supportive housing upstairs in the shelter. She has been living there for two years after starting out in the temporary shelter, and said she feels safe there. She is working on coming out of addiction and the shelter offers her stability in receiving medical help—which she says is life-saving for her. A pharmacist comes every day to administer medication she needs, she added.

“One thing they didn’t touch on…was how much training the employees have here for saving lives. They say (the shelter) is rampant with drug use; it’s rampant with drug use in Port Alberni, let alone in the shelter,” she said.

She said staff are trained in CPR and the use of Naloxone kits in the event of a drug toxicity overdose. Clean drug paraphernalia is provided so users aren’t sharing needles, and there is a “pit” where employees can see whether someone is experiencing drug poisoning on the premises—they know clients’ habits as well.

Gardener said it remains to be seen what will happen when a new service provider is chosen to operate the shelter.

Hewitt said staff worked “for years to develop a way of operating, a way of caring.” Building relationships with shelter residents was one way of fostering harm reduction and “this challenges that. Changing operators is going to be disruptive for our residents,” he said.

A request for proposals went to select tender, Hewitt said. The PA Shelter Society wasn’t invited to bid.

A new service provider has not been named yet, however “BC Housing has reached out to local non-profit housing and shelter providers to seek a new operator for the supportive housing and shelter,” a BC Housing spokesperson said in an email in late February.

“Our goal is to prioritize organizations that can ensure safety for women and vulnerable individuals while also respecting the culture and experiences of local Indigenous Peoples.”

The spokesperson said BC Housing would make a public announcement “once a new operating agreement has been signed.

“We are currently working with Port Alberni Shelter Society (PASS) and partners to ensure that this transition is seamless for residents and clients.”

Susie Quinn

About the Author: Susie Quinn

A journalist since 1987, I proudly serve as the Alberni Valley News editor.
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