Throughout the year-and-a-half of the COVID-19 pandemic, PHS’s Victoria operation has created new housing for 75 people and enabled a further 70 to obtain homes elsewhere.

While operating uninterrupted regular harm reduction services and housing, PHS Victoria has opened four major projects: Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre arena (twice), The Soleil and a shelter at the former Mt. Tolmie long-term care hospital in Saanich.

The first of these additional efforts launched May 2020 with the opening of a temporary emergency shelter at the Save-On-Foods arena. This project provided 47 places for people experiencing homelessness with sleeping pods for physical distancing, nutritious meals, an onsite medical clinic and harm reduction facilities.

When it closed in September of that year, 64 shelter guests had transitioned to permanent housing: 25 to The Soleil and 39 to other service providers. (The 47-space shelter ultimately enabled 64 people to be housed because spaces were backfilled as individuals transferred out.)

Major achievement

Opening The Soleil just on the heels of the arena closing was a major achievement.  The Soleil is 75-units of permanent housing operating at the former Paul’s Motor Inn.

“The Soleil was challenging,” said PHS Director of Victoria Operations Avery Taylor. “The building wasn’t ready when the shelter closed and we had to take it over quicker than expected. But it’s all good now.

“It’s an old motel, so it’s different to our other housing stock. It’s more open, built around a central open space, and there are walkways in front of rooms like a balcony.

“It’s a really good space, a real good community feel. People are outside talking to each other.”

In March 2021, PHS Victoria reopened the arena emergency shelter, renewing the partnership with leaseholders B.C. Housing and supportive site owners GSL Group, which provided catering.

Team effort

The entire operation was a team effort. Island Health funded medical supports, Cool Aid Mobile Inner-City Outreach (CAMICO) provided embedded clinical services and SOLID Outreach Society operated an embedded overdose prevention facility.

“We’re really just trying to give everybody everything that they could need to be prepared to move into housing,” said Avery. “People came in and we got to understand them, they got to know us and it really helped them find permanent housing.”

The temporary lease came to an end in early June.  At that time, 31 people moved to permanent housing and 24 to Mt. Tolmie, which had been obtained by B.C. Housing on a longer-term lease.

“Mt. Tolmie is bright, there’s lots of space and a lot of light,” said Avery. “And landscaping – plants and trees all around us. It’s a positive environment to be living in.

“I feel the community in Saanich has shown their trust. We got a really warm welcome from so many people. A lot of people bought cakes and gift bags they wanted made out to people individually.”

All of these initiatives in housing and shelter, critically needed at all times and urgent in the context of COVID, were in addition to its existing harm reduction and housing services: Douglas Street Community and Johnson Street Community, the Arbutus Shelter and a 22-bed supportive recovery program.

Meanwhile, an additional 42 people are currently sheltering at Mt. Tolmie while new homes are located.

Housing is healthcare. Harm reduction saves lives. That’s what we do at PHS.