The Cowichan Valley school district found it had to act quickly as school started in September after a group of 40-60 homeless people started camping and using drugs near the district’s Beverly Street headquarters.
School board chair Candace Spilsbury and schools superintendent Rod Allen reported to the board and the public Sept. 6 that daytime crossing guards had been hired, district staff were doing early clean up around district buildings and an additional problem area discovered at Cowichan Secondary’s main site had been quickly closed off.
These actions were taken following a summer of watching a troubling situation escalate near the board office.
Spilsbury said concern about students had spurred the district to join talks with the wider community.
Then Allen explained some of the details of a situation that was still causing concern as the year ended.
“Things are looking different here than they did when we left in the spring. Estimates are that there are 40 to 60 people living behind the dike, behind our buildings here. A disturbingly large percentage of them are under 19. We know from conversations with Warmland House [homeless shelter, across the street from the school district offices], they are providing some services, such as clean needle kits, to kids as young as 14,” Allen said.
The district had already discovered that many of the group were vulnerable young people.
“We know that of the youth, about 80 per cent are children in care, and about 80 per cent are female. We also know that there is significantly increased injection drug use.”
Allen said it appeared the combination of nearby availability of drugs and needles and a quiet place made the area attractive to the young people.
“Ground zero seems to be right on this property. It doesn’t seem to extend over to Quamichan or to [nearby] Alexander [Elementary School]. It seems pretty contained here,” he said.
Talks with neighbours looked at the problems from two angles, Allen said.
“Number one, of course, is the immediate safety of our students and the adults that work here. A second part is how are we thinking of moving forward as a community with a situation that really didn’t exist here four months ago?”
Straightforward moves were taken immediately. A rear courtyard of Cowichan Secondary is now completely fenced for security and easier cleaning.
At Beverly Street, a crew did an early morning sweep around doorways and under trees, looking for needles and other paraphernalia, using appropriate safety precautions.
“Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, as Candace said, we have a number of students moving back and forth between the two campuses. We know there are some areas along that route that are particularly troublesome. So for the first two weeks of school, while we see what the situation is like, we have hired two ‘noon hour supervisors’ to be along that route during the day.
“We’re also chatting with kids to see if they are noticing anything or seeing anything and what we should be doing.”
That situation was reassessed after a while as their appeared to be no problems for students moving back and forth between campuses.
Warmland House and other local agencies and levels of government have also been in on the discussions.
That movement has been pushed by the district because, as board vice chair Barb De Groot pointed out at an Oct. 4 board meeting, a lot of homeless may be school-aged.
“While it’s not the school district’s problem, it is an issue for our community,” De Groot said. “I think somebody needs to step up here and I think we are going to have to do it. The fact that they are not attending school, that they are at risk in the community, means we have to get people together and say, what can we do?”
Trustees liked her idea to get the City of Duncan, North Cowichan, the Cowichan Valley Regional District, the Ministry of Children and Family Development, the RCMP and other organizations together to formulate some concrete action.
As the year ended, a few of the people involved were reporting privately that at least some of the young people had been found places to stay.
Allen reported Oct. 4 that there had been no problems for students.
Trustee Elizabeth Croft had investigated the areas in question. A walk along the Somenos dike showed “certainly there was no garbage on the school side of the bank but you do want to be careful on the other side. There are lots of little cubby holes where lots of folks have been hanging out.”
Cathy Schmidt, another trustee who has walked the area, said that during the walk, the group talked about who is accountable.
“Can we ask those ministries, how can we support getting them back into our buildings? Perhaps communication could be better there as far as that. And maybe that is our way to support it.”