With temperatures dropping well below freezing at night, Heidi Mendenhall and Darren Brown are finding it increasingly difficult to live in a tent in Duncan.
The common-law couple have been living on the streets in Duncan for 12 weeks after being evicted from a house that had other tenants, unrelated to them, that had issues with the landlord.
Their search for a new home has proven futile, even though they, together, have access to approximately $1,200 to pay for rent each month from the province and the Hiiye’yu Lelum House of Friendship Society. The funds are only accessible if the couple has a place to rent; it cannot be used for a hotel stay.
While searching for a new home in a region where rental vacancy rates are reported to be only about one per cent, the couple have approached local shelters looking for temporary assistance.
But most are already full and they also have policies that would separate them into male and female accommodations, and Mendenhall has health issues that require constant attention that Brown currently provides.
There’s also the fact that the couple has a dog, and most shelters don’t allow pets.
They have checked into the possibility of finding a place to rent in Victoria and Nanaimo, but rental vacancy rates are almost as low as in Duncan in those centres, and the units that are available are more expensive than they can afford.
The Duncan United Church on Jubilee Street is currently allowing the couple to live in their tent on church property for one week while they continue to search for accommodations, but the week is almost up and they still have no place to go.
“My health is declining so we’re getting pretty desperate,” Mendenhall said outside of her tent on a cold, blustery day.
“We don’t know what to do. This is the coldest winter in the area for some time, and we thought we’d only be living in this tent for a short time.”
Debbie Williams, executive director of the Hiiye’yu Lelum House of Friendship Society, said the society often assists people like Mendenhall and Brown with emergency support and rent supplements.
But she acknowledged that the availability of housing to fit their needs is desperately low in the Cowichan Valley.
In fact, Williams said the housing situation in the Valley is reaching a “crisis” situation.
“Our staff is constantly assisting people with housing placements, but you’d have to be a miracle worker these days to successfully place people,” Williams said.
“We’ve been having a little more success in Lake Cowichan and Crofton, but many in the Duncan area don’t want to move to these places because they would be far away from services and transportation routes.”
Signy Madden, executive director of the United Way Central and Northern Vancouver Island, said the situation is being exacerbated by the high costs of housing and rent in larger centres like Victoria and Vancouver that are forcing many to head for smaller and less expensive areas, like the Cowichan Valley.
“That effectively squeezes out the lower end of the housing and rental market that has people with limited incomes in the Valley,” Madden said.
She said there are some affordable housing projects in the area being undertaken by local municipalities in cooperation with senior levels of government and social organizations.
But Madden acknowledged that much more needs to be done to deal with the issue.
“What’s needed is a community plan and we’re planning a meeting in the Valley on Jan. 17 to get all stakeholders together to begin to determine how best to coordinate efforts and see exactly what’s needed to get people off the streets,” she said.
But strategies to help them in the future are doing little to help Mendenhall and Brown right now.
“We’re down to just a few days before we have to find another place to set up our tent,” Mendenhall said.
“We just don’t know where to go.”