The Story of Tiny Houses, Intertwined Problems and a BC Municipality

At the Union of BC Municipalities convention, 161 different municipalities and 27 regional governments gathered in Whistler this week.

It’s the first time they’ve met in person in three years. Every day there are discussions devoted to different topics that are sometimes called a “crisis”: housing affordability, mental health, drug poisoning, health care shortages.

Some mayors and councilors agree with the general approach taken by the provincial government. Others, less.

“Students are going to learn how to use hard drugs now that they’re legal,” Cranbrook Coun said. Ron Popoff said during a session on the upcoming decriminalization of simple possession of certain drugs in British Columbia starting in February 2023.

“This is a health crisis, but we are going to turn this into what could be a societal crisis if we don’t plan properly…how will this initiative to legalize small amounts of hard drug control and reduce the related crime that goes into our communities?”

Popoff’s concerns were shared by many municipalities outside the Lower Mainland, fearful that they would be asked to implement another set of new rules put in place by upper levels of government without new resources.

But each municipality has a different political culture and a different way of trying to address these issues.

Which brings us to Duncan.

The small village in the town of Duncan has been operating since the start of 2022. (Town of Duncan)

“Parts that are somehow intertwined”

“I think it’s a really important step in the right direction,” Duncan adviser Stacy Middlemiss said after hearing the government’s plans.

Duncan has only 5,000 residents, but it is the urban center of the Cowichan Valley, home to some 50,000 people. As such, it deals with many of the same overlapping issues as much larger cities.

As a counselor and registered psychiatric nurse who has run homeless shelters, Middlemiss is aware of the tensions between going too fast or too slow.

“Sometimes we can try to wait until everything is perfect before rolling out programs,” she said.

“Sometimes it takes the actual experience of working on things before you can understand all the little details, but as long as they’re working on it, I think people are going to like it.”

But she is also aware of trying to solve part of the problem without addressing other aspects.

“I think the [support] programs that they talk about integrating, we are far from those elements. Who is going to staff some of these services?

“I know as a nurse we’re understaffed all the time, nurses come to me because they don’t have a place to live. It’s housing, it’s got all these parts which are somehow intertwined.”

Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples said many people who originally opposed the tiny houses now say they support them. (Radio-Canada News)

The small village was imitated

At the same time, Duncan tries to find his own solutions.

Earlier this year, a small 34-unit village opened an unused BC Housing lot.

There are restrooms and storage facilities, but also 24/7 staff, including two overnight security guards. Peer outreach programs allow community members to participate in the upkeep of the area and to bond with residents. An evaluation team decides who can be part of the space.

“We know that a lot of people in our community, especially the most vulnerable people in our community, just don’t fit into … putting them in supportive housing. So this is a transitional option,” said Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples.

“It’s about meeting people where they are and being that kind of first step towards connecting to safety.”

She said the vast majority of residents reported improved mental health and are now participating in employment programs.

The success was enough for other Vancouver Island communities to take notice.

“We have a model and we’ve seen how successful Duncan has been,” said Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions, whose municipality bought property next to a trailer site with many marginalized residents living in it. bad conditions.

They plan to move people from the caravan site to the new small village, and Minions says there has been little pushback from the community so far.

“Duncan and other projects that are out there have a big role to play in showing that this is not something we need to be afraid of,” Minions said.

“In fact, it can be something that can really improve neighborhoods and make a huge difference in people’s lives.”

All municipalities are different and not all solutions are universal. But Staples hopes other communities will be as proactive as Duncan in their own way.

“It doesn’t work, does it?” she asked, knowing full well what “it was”.

“So we shouldn’t be afraid to try and see what will work…it’s not going to change overnight, but it will.”