B.C. hospital’s use as shelter ‘clarion call’ about housing crisis, says mayor

The 10-bed regional hospital that serves the medical needs of 5,000 people on the remote west coast of Vancouver Island has been doing extra duty lately as an emergency shelter for the homeless and poorly housed, says the mayor of Tofino.

Josie Osborne says she and her council were shocked to discover that Tofino General Hospital regularly provides beds and meals for people who arrive at the facility for treatment who would normally not require in-patient service.

A delegation from Island Health, including the area’s medical health officer and a hospital doctor, appeared at Tofino council last month when the issue was discussed, she said.

“I personally was unaware that people were staying overnight in the hospital sometimes because they simply didn’t have an adequate home to go back to,” said Osborne. “That’s deeply concerning.”

Tofino General Hospital serves as a regional health facility for a vast region of eight communities, some of which are accessible only by boat or float plane. Osborne said due to the distances some people travel and the remoteness of their communities, the hospital sometimes admits people overnight who can’t make it home after treatment, although the homeless issue is a recent development.

“But there are a few people who live in Tofino who present at the hospital and they’ve got both medical and social reasons why the hospital staff choose to admit them overnight,” said Osborne. “It is effectively acting as a temporary shelter for some people who don’t have a safe home or a healthy place to return to at night.”

She said hospital staff now admit people on a regular basis overnight who have no other place to go.

“It’s a clarion call, I think, to the entire community to say we have problems we have to talk about,” Osborne said. “They are difficult to talk about but we’ve got to resolve these.”

She said she doesn’t believe the hospital is planning to close its doors to the homeless.

“I don’t get the sense the hospital is upset,” Osborne said.

Island Health spokeswoman Shannon Marshall said B.C. hospitals, including Tofino General, do not consider themselves emergency homeless shelters, but patients without housing are often admitted overnight to allow health officials to help make plans for their futures.

Tofino regularly struggles with affordable housing shortages for local workers who serve the area’s thousands of tourists, but now the accommodation crisis is hitting the most vulnerable people the hardest, said Osborne.

“With the exception of higher end market housing, it’s very difficult for people to find something affordable for their income range,” she said. “That goes from professionals down to tourism front-line workers to retirees who move to the community and want to spend their time here.”

Tofino is in the planning stages of developing an affordable, multi-unit, rental housing project on municipal land, but a completion date has not been set, said Osborne.

She said discovering the local hospital is serving as an emergency shelter heightens the need to address the housing shortfall in the community.

“It just raises the level of awareness that there are gaps at all levels, especially when you hear about the gaps for our more vulnerable population.”

The B.C. Housing Ministry said in a statement the situation in Tofino demonstrates how the housing crisis is affecting communities. The province has committed to building 114,000 new affordable homes over 10 years.

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