Keeping one man safe, dry and warm is a solid start for a trio self-tasked with creating dialogue in a bid to keep unhoused residents sheltered and bridge divisions in Greater Victoria.
The project germinated when Jeremy Caradonna and Matt Dell invited documentary film producer and director Krista Loughton as a guest on their podcast Best Coast. Loughton’s first feature, Us and Them, takes a deep look at homelessness. For her second – Home, about the systemic reasons behind the epidemic – she spent the first winter of the COVID-19 pandemic filming on the streets for Home, a documentary about the systemic reasons behind the epidemic.
“She’s really got her finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the community on that topic,” Dell said.
They formed the Community Alliance for Sheltering Alternatives (CASA) in late 2021, specifically to build a prototype Conestoga hut for a Victoria resident experiencing homelessness. Their premise is if people can see something it’s much easier to understand than just talking about it. They settled on the Conestoga hut based on its success in Eugene, Ore., which now features micro villages as part of its shelter system. The largest village includes 18 huts, with smaller groups from one to seven. All villages also have other supports in place.
“They’re organized according to the community needs,” Loughton said. For example, one is for veterans, others could be for those who rise early for work or those with complex care needs.
“I know people out there right now who have complex care needs (and) there’s no space for them within the system.”
The huts are cheap, quick, warm, with a good bed out of the rain, a step up from a tent and secure, Loughton said. They cost roughly $3,500 in materials and can be built by volunteers. They have a small footprint, are easy to move if necessary and have a steel door with a deadbolt.
“These are insulated steel doors with a deadbolt lock. Someone can come in here lock the door and feel safe, particularly females,” Loughton said. “People can leave their things, go out about their day to get their lives cooking and moving in the direction they want to and not have to worry about their things. This is not housing, this is a temporary interim shelter solution, it’s a supplement to the shelter system we have right now.”
The huts are a short- to medium-term solution, far better than sleeping in a doorway, Caradonna said. “I don’t foresee people living the rest of their lives in a Conestoga hut, the idea is to get people sheltered and off the street and eventually pivoted to housing.”
CASA started small – one hut to shelter one person – and has built two in fewer than two months.
The first, in spare space adjacent to Shelbourne Street Church in Saanich, serves as a site to build community support, seek feedback and develop relationships with community stakeholders and government organizations, to create alternatives to camping in parks and sleeping rough.
“The best way to talk about them is not on Facebook, it’s just to have one in your village and you can go check it out,” Dell said. CASA is working with Saanich to seek a temporary bylaw to allow someone to live there.
The second hut is keeping a man experiencing homelessness warm, dry and safe on private property. It’s a host and guest relationship with a contract in place between them outlining rules and expectations.
“We’re just going to keep talking to people and networking and trying to show service providers and the people who are the experts on this kind of thing what’s possible. We’ve sheltered one person already and that’s a huge win for us,” Dell said.
The organization is open to one-offs but would like to look at working with the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness in conjunction with BC Housing to do something at a bigger scale.
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Extreme weather, pandemic push
Community Alliance for Sheltering Alternatives (CASA) sees the hut initiative as a supplement to the extreme weather response in Greater Victoria, amid a lack of emergency winter shelter spaces.
There are a few hundred people living rough in the region, and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem.
Greater Victoria’s last Point in Time Count took place March 11 and 12, 2020 with volunteers, service agencies and community partners participating in the homeless count and survey. On the night of March 11, at least 1,523 people in the region were experiencing homelessness.
B.C. declared the public health emergency on March 17 and the impact was almost immediate according to a July 2020 CRD report.
The CASA Conestoga hut project is not a housing initiative, but rather a sheltering solution, Jeremy Carradona noted.
This winter wasn’t looking much better with shelters still at half capacity, only 30 extra beds and a couple of warming centres and those sleeping rough in Victoria, bound by a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. bylaw barring daytime use.
“There’s no place for people to be,” Krista Loughton said.
“People become handcuffed to their things and I can’t imagine what that must feel like … We can do better and we wanted to show this is one example how we can do better as a community.”
For a current list of temporary, permanent and extreme weather response shelters in B.C., call or text 211.
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