Cowichan School District wants to help homeless back to class

Cowichan Valley school trustees want to get together with officials and government agencies to find help for the homeless young people

Cowichan Valley school trustees want to get together with municipal officials and government agencies to find help for the homeless young people who’ve been camping out behind the school district offices on Beverly Street.

School board vice chair Barb De Groot said at the Oct. 4 board meeting that her talks with schools superintendent Rod Allen and board chair Candace Spilsbury have highlighted that 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.

At the beginning of September, the Cowichan Valley school district was forced to act quickly to deal with potential danger to students after a group of 40-60 homeless started camping and using drugs near the district’s Beverly Street headquarters.

They instituted a daily morning sweep of the property to remove drug paraphernalia and other garbage, and hired extra staff to patrol the route students have to walk between Cowichan Secondary’s James Street and Quamichan campuses, and also took action to close off an area at Cowichan Secondary School where homeless people had been gathering at night.

Allen reported Oct. 4 that the school district’s prompt action has forestalled any potential problems for students in the area.

“I’m happy to say that has improved significantly. We acted in September with an abundance of caution for our students. We’ve checked with the supervisors continually. They reported no interactions with people we wouldn’t want interacting with our young folks as they are walking back and forth. We’ve been keeping close tabs on the drug paraphernalia that we’ve found on these grounds. [Operations manager Monroe] Grobe and his staff have been sweeping the grounds every morning and are finding less and less and less. In fact, I know that some days they are finding nothing in terms of needles or whatever,” Allen said.

“As you know, we also fenced the back property of Cowichan Secondary School where there had been some people gathering in the evenings, where it’s out of sight and dry. That fencing has worked like a charm and those areas are clean in the mornings and suitable for students.

“So, our response at the moment is that we have stepped back a little bit with our supervision. We no longer have someone full time walking back and forth on the road between Cow High and Quam, but we have kept that extra supervision there at lunch when there are significant numbers of kids moving back and forth,” he said.

Trustee Elizabeth Croft was one of the trustees who has herself investigated the areas in question and praised the astuteness of the walking supervisors.

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.”

She asked if some concrete barriers along the far left side of the property could be moved.

“Those barriers still look to me like hidey holes where people could get up to stuff,” she said.

Allen reassured her that the district planned to move them, now that the sand and gravel that was also there has been moved to a place where it can be kept clean and usable.

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, when it comes to those kids who should be in our buildings, 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, because a lot of these homeless kids should be in our buildings during the day,” she said.

The homeless group moved in behind the school district buildings during the summer.

The biggest concern that came up in September was that, according to Allen, “a disturbingly large percentage of them are under 19” with some being as young as 14, mostly young girls in care, and that there was a lot of drug use going on near the school district offices where students would be walking every day.