Thursday, July 18, 2019

Burst bubbles: How Victoria’s housing crisis impacts Camosun students

November 7, 2018 by Fred Cameron, features writer

On September 15 of this year, a letter from a Camosun College instructor was published in the Times Colonist; in the letter, the instructor told of a “dedicated student” who had been evicted from Saanich’s tent city and faced challenges that most of his peers likely haven’t considered. My initial response was strengthened gratitude for what I have, but as it sank in, I was faced with a number of questions. Why this student and not me? What kinds of barriers are faced by students who find themselves in a similar predicament? And, considering how hard society works collectively to sweep the marginalized under the rug, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of our fellow students have found themselves facing similar battles, what their lives look like, and—if they want it—where they can go for help.

 

When I’m not writing for Nexus or going to Camosun, I work as an outreach worker. I’m professionally centred in the downtown red zone, right at ground zero: the 900 block of Pandora. At a glance, the street-entrenched population doesn’t seem to be bound by age, gender, creed, sex, or economic background. While my position helps me in terms of understanding, I didn’t know of any homeless Camosun students; however, I do have a network of friends and colleagues who I thought would be more than happy to help me out. I started a chain of emails to academics, paramedics, fellow outreach workers, and instructors, and then went out and shook hands and started talking to people on the Pandora sidewalks.

I was initially directed to Paige Phillips, a 28-year-old first-year Camosun Business student who, on the surface, shows no signs of her convoluted past. Today, Phillips is a happily married mother of two who attends Camosun with hopes of completing an Accounting degree over the next five years. But life wasn’t always this way for her.

“While I was in high school, I bounced around between provinces,” says Phillips. “I was fully homeless in those situations. They put me in a group home, and then I got kicked out, and I had to go to an adult shelter, and got really fucked up. I was still going to school, so there was some regularity, but as soon as I graduated, my sustainable, 9-to-5 kind of life was gone, and I was just fucked all the time. Because there was nothing in place, you couldn’t access adult resources as a ministry kid who couldn’t access ministry resources as a student. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Unable to find a safe and steady place to live, Phillips had to do it by herself.

“I was living on my own, and I didn’t make rent, so I lost my apartment,” says Phillips. “I was a teenager, so I just left really quick. I kept my suitcases behind a couple of dumpsters, and I just wandered around most nights. I worked night shifts, and then I just partied the other nights, and they turned into days, and they turned into weeks, and they turned into years. I was homeless on and off for the rest of my life after that.”

Phillips says that her primary issue was a lack of social support the first time she was homeless. 

“I really didn’t feel like I had anyone I could go to to talk about my tenancy issues,” says Phillips. “It was easier to deal with on my own. When you have a drug habit, you really don’t want people in your business. Especially when you’re high functioning—you don’t want to be ratted out. There is a level of shame, too. You don’t want people to know. Sometimes you just want to prove people wrong. That’s exactly why I stayed in high school and got through it.” 

This story was originally in our November 7, 2018 issue.

As I know from my own history, it can be very hard to reach out, or even to accept help when it’s offered. I couldn’t help but ask Phillips if she would have taken it if proper support were in place.

“When I was in high school, yes,” she says. “It was the first time. It’s scary, so you don’t want to be homeless. If there were more supports there I definitely would have taken it, and I would have taken it any time, but it wasn’t there. When I moved to BC, my husband Jack and I were living on the streets. We moved from Vancouver to Victoria when I was 21, but that continued until I was about 24. We were completely entrenched on the streets.”

Phillips says that when she was pregnant she tried to use every resource possible, but it was still difficult to get help.

“There are still people who currently work in the system who wouldn’t help us. It isn’t until your second or third trimester that you will even get looked at. We still didn’t get accepted. We couldn’t get housing with anyone. We had to do everything on our own. I couldn’t get into the Cool Aid system because I couldn’t get my health care records transferred, so I have a pharmacy bill of over $10,000 for my methadone. I couldn’t get into the clinic, and I have chronic health conditions. I couldn’t get a worker, even as a pregnant young person. I was pretty pissed off. I don’t think the services were helpful locally. Their judgment stopped us from getting help at a lot of places. It seems it’s more about who you know than what you know. Not being from here didn’t help.”

With no choice but to move forward, Phillips says that her family struggled through all the difficulties. She came back to school in 2015, enrolling in the Building Employment Success for Tomorrow (BEST) program at Camosun. At the time they were recently housed, and Phillips says that she and her family almost lost their tenancy.

“Because we had a child, and I was going to Camosun,” says Phillips, “we were able to use the ombudsman, and we used every Camosun resource possible to avoid being homeless. We really used every support possible that Camosun offered. We drained their resources. Like completely draining them, but they kept us afloat, and it kept me in school. I kept up with the BEST program, and then finished my upgrading, and now I’ve gone into business. Being able to access those resources kept us from the streets. We were really, really close. They were helping us call shelters and everything.” 

Phillips says that investment that Camosun or the Camosun College Student Society—she can’t recall exactly who she got the help from—put into her has returned double, as she now works in the community, helping others in the same situation.

“I am a health education coordinator and an advocate. Because I have had to learn to navigate the system to stay alive and keep my family together, I help others by showing them what I did to get through the system and keep working through the legal, medical, and housing systems,” she says. “It’s therapeutic for me, and it’s therapeutic for other people. It’s really peer support and peer navigation to help people meet the social determinants of health. I learned it the hard way, but it all comes naturally now.” 

 

With her permission, I brought Phillips’ success story to the attention of Camosun ombudsman Carter MacDonald. I let him know that she is now working in the community helping others in the same way that he helped her. MacDonald says that sometimes the work he does multiplies in the community. 

“I would call that a success story,” says MacDonald. “I’ve seen it a few times. Sometimes if a student comes back and feels that they are at a point where they can stand on their own two feet they may not feel the need to come back and see me. These stories don’t often come to my attention. I’m pleased that you shared that with me because it encourages me to keep practicing being an ombuds in the way that I do it. I’m a human being, and I very much care about the health and the success of our students. I don’t have a magic wand. I can’t solve everybody’s problems, but I will do my best to try.”

When it comes to helping students in the outside community, MacDonald says that he primarily uses the Bridges for Women Society’s Bridges Community Handbook to refer students to the proper services.

“I’ve seen a lot of students who have been in dire financial need, and students who have racked up a tremendous amount of student debt,” he says. “You don’t always get the opportunities, but you need to act on them when they present [themselves]. That’s why I take the time I take with our students to make certain that they don’t slip between our collective fingers.” 

MacDonald says that his primary role is to ensure fair process for students.

“I try to allow them the time and the space to be able to talk about their situation,” says MacDonald. “Listening is the most underestimated communication skill that there is. If people feel that they are listened to, they’ll tell you more. It’s hard to help someone unless you have the proper information.”

In recent years, MacDonald says there’ve been some international students who have had landlord-tenant issues.

“Unfortunately, there are some unscrupulous landlords, and students for whom English is not their mother tongue get taken advantage of. Over the past couple of years, three international students came to see me, and I put them in touch with an advocate in the community. The students all seemed to me to have acted in good faith, notwithstanding the fact that they were having trouble trying to understand the rental scheme. In all three instances, the adjudicator found for the students.” 

Camosun College Student Society (CCSS) executive director Michel Turcotte says that the CCSS acknowledges that there are affordability and capacity problems in the Victoria-area rental situation that disproportionately impact students. 

“The CCSS believes that having a roof over one’s head should be a right and people should not have to choose between food or shelter,” he says. “We hope that the government will provide funding to Camosun to build affordable student residences to help alleviate this particular problem, because if we get some students out of secondary suites and things of that nature, that will also free up housing for more of the non-student residents of the capital region.”

Turcotte says that the CCSS has a guide available at its food banks that lists non-profits and social-service agencies.

“Our expertise is student issues; housing is not our area of expertise, so we would tend to want to refer them to others that have more experience in that area,” he says. “But we do have some of those resources available at our offices.”

Turcotte says that the CCSS has definitely encountered some Camosun students who are homeless, and has encountered a lot more who are in accommodations that are not ideal.

“People have to make choices nowadays, given prices and availability of accommodations,” he says. “So you have more roommates than you may like, or it may not be as nice as you may want, or a lot of students would prefer a non-shared type of accommodation, but that’s becoming increasingly difficult, given the situation.”

 

I would guess that many people associate homelessness with drugs, alcohol, whisker length, and clothing condition, and do their best to not think about the actual housing crisis. The truth is that, with vacancy rates where they are, much of the student population is vulnerable.

I sat down for a chat with August, a recent Camosun grad who is finishing up her final year of Nursing at UVic (August is not her real name, but she was granted anonymity for this story).

August could walk through any west coast campus and blend right in. On the surface, she looks young, happy, healthy, and full of energy. So why is she different?

“Basically, myself and my roommate, who is also in fourth-year Nursing, are both living in a 1975 Vanguard motorhome,” says August. “We live in there together because we could not find a place we could afford. We are in school with a 100-percent course load, and that doesn’t allow much time for us to work at all.”

The two of them had spent two years in their previous home, which August says was a decent place at a decent price, but they were asked to sign a lease for another year.

“Because our program is ending in April,” says August, “and I’m not even sure that I can get a job in Victoria, I can’t commit for a whole year. So [our landlord] basically evicted us, and it was all of a sudden. Basically, we freaked out and started looking everywhere for places, but we could not find a single place that was within our budget that wasn’t a rat’s den.” 

August says that time was running out and they had to leave, so they started to look for vans. She says they found one that, at 21 feet, is big enough, so they moved in. Then the challenges began.

“We don’t have running water,” says August. “I have to do my dishes at school in the bathroom. Everything is more of a challenge. Everything takes longer. We have to walk to a public washroom. We have to go and gather water about every three days. We have to be very creative with what we eat. We have a fridge, but we never know when it’s going to go out. We can’t really rely on anything. Not to mention I don’t have Wi-Fi, which makes it a lot more difficult to do my homework. I can stay at UVic to use the Wi-Fi. I have to always think ahead to make it all work.”

August says that the most challenging part is finding a place to sleep, because it’s illegal to sleep in a vehicle.

“We have, basically, been told by law enforcement officers to continuously move so we’re not congregating,” says August. “We have to vacate the park by 7. They hand us a pamphlet telling us we can go to the shelter, or we could build a home out of anything from 7 pm to 7 am. That’s not going to work when we have class at 8. I’m not going to take everything I own to school, participate in nursing and my practicum, and then go back and build my home again every night.”

As a full-time student, August is living off of student loans. She says that some of the money she had been spending on rent is available to improve other aspects of her life.

“I have been able to go to yoga and have a gym membership, and I have been able to spend my money on more healthy things that are supporting my lifestyle,” she says. “It can be intense to be doing this alternative living, but this experience has changed my whole outlook on life. It has pulled me or physically removed me from society, and I’m grateful for that. As shitty as it is sometimes, I am so grateful, because it has opened an incredible can of worms.” 

August says that she hopes that the recent civic election brings some changes to the housing market. She says housing seems to be on every candidate’s mind.

“Me and my roommate are not an anomaly at all,” says August. “This is the way the world is going. Alternative living, tiny homes, van life—it is what is practical right now. It’s too expensive out there. It’s not feasible for students, and we really, really, really need to look at providing a different source of housing—not just affordable homes that we have been talking about forever here. We need to do something different, because this just isn’t working.” 

 

Working in the support field, I am regularly in direct contact with the homeless population. There’s one person I’ve overheard talking about returning to school whom I was hoping to get a chance to talk to for this piece. He seems intelligent, fit, and enthusiastic, but from what I can see in passing he lacks the support needed to get his feet under him. I don’t know him by name, but he agreed to talk to me.

The young man doesn’t have a phone, but I see him from time to time on the street. We have to reschedule on more than one occasion and our meeting doesn’t seem to be happening. Then, on a Saturday night, I run into him on Pandora Avenue. I walk up and ask him how he is doing. He is clearly not at his best, but he says he’s fine and asks me if I’m ready to do the interview. We walk down to a Tim Hortons; as we choose a table and start talking, I can see immediately that we should have picked a better time, but he insists that he wants to do the interview. 

The 23-year-old, who we’ll call Steven, tells me he has been homeless as long as he has been living in Victoria. 

“I live wherever I rest my head,” says Steven. “Sometimes I am lucky enough to stay with friends, but I can’t rely on them to house me. I had a place lined up for October, but I couldn’t come up with the money, so I didn’t get the place.”

In addition to the struggles a homeless addict faces, Steven has a brain injury. I couldn’t forget the promise I had seen in him in our prior visits, so I asked what he thought he would be doing if he weren’t caught in this lifestyle.

“I’ve been to work, man,” says Steven. “I have a bachelor’s of the job site, because no matter what you need done, I can do it—except for plumbing, pipefitting, or electrical. It’s easy to find work, but it’s hard to want to get there every day. I know nobody wants to go to work, but it’s different when you’re on the streets. I used to do it every day, but it’s different now. I don’t have a sigh of relief when I close myself off to the outside world—it’s a constant state of regret, but I can’t get out of it.”

Steven says he knows he needs a change, but he doesn’t know where to start.

“I would love to go to Camosun,” says Steven. “If I’m not going to be working in construction, then I need to bump up my education big time. I was thinking about taking a mathematics refresher before I go back. Honestly, it’s myself holding me back. It’s not like there is a big bully standing in front of me.” 

I can almost see his thought process at times. Steven’s energy moves in ebbs and flows, to the point of him nodding off once or twice. I haven’t quite got the story, so I asked if it were up to him, all barriers aside, what would he like to do next. Instantly, Steven stated that he would go to a treatment centre that is focused on sober surfing. The only thing keeping him from going is the $3,000-a-week tab. Steven is very adamant about the fact that he doesn’t want to live like this anymore. Then, I ask another question, and… silence.

Steven has fallen asleep at the table. I wait a minute and call to him again, but he doesn’t respond. I start to pack up my things and put my coat on. I turn off my recorder, and the beep makes him jump a little. I watch for a moment, but he seems to be asleep. I stand up and pat him on the shoulder to see if he was okay to leave.

“I’m in,” Steven says. “Can you fast-track me? I need help.”

Facebook comments; non-Facebook comments below

Comments are closed.