The Bread of Life and a partner organization from Vancouver have agreed to buy the Beaufort Hotel in Port Alberni and run it as a minimal barrier housing facility.
“It’s all pretty exciting,” said John Edmondson from Bread of Life in Port Alberni. “The Beaufort gives us the opportunity for new rooms and multiple service providers on site in one location.”
Lookout Housing and Health Society began 50 years ago in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, providing housing for homeless people. They have 55 sites all over the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, including Victoria and the Cowichan Valley.
“We have about 3,000 clients or guests per day we work with,” Lookout board president Chuck Puchmayr said. Their facilities are minimal barrier, and one-third of their users identify as Metis, First Nations or Indigenous, he added. They operate with a foundation that provides funding in addition to government funding.
Lookout services in the Lower Mainland include a farm in Mission that provides fresh food to their facilities, a protein food bank for people whose health needs demand more protein, and a dental clinic.
The Bread of Life had a six-month contract to purchase the Beaufort previously from owner Paul Saroya, but they weren’t able to fulfill the terms and the contract lapsed, Edmondson said. That’s when Lookout entered the picture.
“It looked like something we could make happen,” Puchmayr said.
The partnership with Lookout has come at an opportune time, Edmondson added. Bread of Life members have the local expertise, and Lookout members have expertise running low barrier housing.
The Bread of Life had been tentatively approved for $6.5 million in rapid housing funding from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), but the grant process was oversubscribed and the money ran out before everything that was approved was funded. Edmondson and Puchmayr are optimistic they will receive funding when the next round is announced in October.
Should the funding come through, Edmondson estimates the building will need $3.5 million in renovations. There are presently 19 units in the building that are all occupied, and BOL and Lookout would like to triple the rental space. The main floor of the former convention centre has a kitchen, and Lookout has a culinary training program on the mainland whose instructors would agree to come to Port Alberni and set up a similar program.
Current residents would not be evicted during renovations.
“One of the visions we always had with Bread of Life is the building wouldn’t just provide rooms. A roof is nice but help along the way is better. We want to combine the two.”
“We have overwhelming support from the local MLA (Josie Osborne) and federal MP (Gord Johns),” Puchmayr said. “The city has been working incredibly well with us. We would be able to hit the ground running if this thing is approved.”
“We wouldn’t be this far along if it wasn’t for Gord Johns,” Edmondson added. “He’s been a champion for this, for sure, knocking on doors looking for funding.”
If the rapid housing funding isn’t approved, Edmondson said there are other options to pursue. “This town needs help, this town needs funding and we’re not going to stop until we get it.
Bringing in an outside agency like Lookout to create a minimal barrier facility fulfills one of the recommendations on a BC Housing report released in March 2021 on the Port Alberni Shelter Society. The first recommendation was for BC Housing to consider the development of an alternate shelter or housing site in Port Alberni with strong mental health and substance use supports. Many of the recommendations also included more connection and cultural sensitivity to Indigenous clients.
Edmondson said the Beaufort project would fulfill a need in Port Alberni. “In my mind, what’s missing in Port Alberni is that chunk of population that’s hardest to house, and hardest to deal with. This project would cover that.”
Puchmayr and Mary Campbell of the Lookout Housing and Health Society attended a virtual meeting of Port Alberni city council on July 26 to present their plans for the Beaufort Hotel. They did not ask for any decisions from council at this meeting.
“Thank you for recognizing the very significant need that exists in our community,” Mayor Sharie Minions told them. “I’m really excited to see this come to fruition.”