Despite the homelessness and opioid crises, BC Housing has failed to employ Woodwynn Farm during its 2 years of ownership.
THE ROLLING MEADOWS and picturesque barns of Woodwynn Farm on West Saanich Road remain in a serene time-warp. There’s no outward sign of activity despite a two-year-old pledge by the provincial government to establish a therapeutic recovery community on the 193-acre site.
While the acrimonious Central Saanich controversy that divided the community and occupied countless hours of council time has faded to a whisper, simultaneously, the opioid crisis has tightened its grip on the province. In July a near record-breaking 175 deaths occurred with calls for more treatment beds and options beyond detox for those struggling to remove themselves from an increasingly toxic supply of street drugs. In the past 6 months, overdose deaths have numbered 750, while those from COVID-19 hover just over 200.
So, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, with reduced treatment options and escalating homelessness problems, what has happened to the promise to turn the historic Woodwynn property into a therapeutic recovery community?
Richard Leblanc, founder of the Creating Homefulness Society, at Woodwynn Farm in 2017.
Selina Robinson, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, said, at the time of the purchase in July 2018, that the farm would provide a therapeutic environment for people experiencing mental health challenges and substance-use issues. “The purchase of Woodwynn Farm means we can provide more services for people living in supportive housing who will benefit from access to extended therapeutic care,” she said.
Fast-forward to 2020 and a ministry spokesperson told Focus that planning for the site is on hold until discussions are held with Tsartlip First Nation and Ministry of Indigenous Relations. “The Tsartlip First Nation expressed interest in being part of the discussions around the use of the land and the Province recognizes the importance of Woodwynn Farms to the Nation,” the spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement.
Tsartlip Chief Don Tom did not return calls from Focus.
In the meantime, BC Housing has completed $160,000 of renovations, including new roofs and demolition of the pig barn, according to the ministry. The Province budgeted $6.9 million to buy the farm, with $5.8-million going to the purchase price and $1.1-million for renovations, fees and consulting costs.
The Province bought the 78-hectare property from the Creating Homefulness Society, which was mired in debt after trying in vain to persuade Central Saanich Council and BC’s Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) to allow on-site housing for 40 residents who would work as temporary farm hands while receiving addiction treatment.
The society’s original plans called for 98 people to be housed at the farm, but, between neighbourhood and council opposition and ALR regulations that stipulate any housing must be necessary for farm use, the idea foundered.
The Province skirted the housing problem by saying there would be no housing on site, but BC Housing would be working with Central Saanich and regional housing providers “to make this opportunity available to supportive housing tenants” (i.e. people living elsewhere).
At that time, Our Place expressed interest in helping operate a therapeutic recovery community, but has received no recent information about provincial plans, said Grant McKenzie, Our Place communications director.
McKenzie expressed skepticism about the project’s success. “Unless you are allowed to build some housing on that property to house people in therapeutic recovery and farming the land, not much is going to happen with it,” predicted McKenzie. The property would be useful, but busing people in would not be successful, he said. “I would say it’s probably a non-starter because [council and the ALC] would oppose it…The neighbours don’t want to see homelessness existing,” he said.
Richard Leblanc, founder of the Creating Homefulness Society, no longer has any input into the future of Woodwynn, but, as the overdose death toll rises, he believes a properly run therapeutic recovery centre could be saving lives.
The power and strength of a therapeutic community program at Woodwynn should be helping those who are struggling, he said. “It should be helping people deal with the root causes, rather than shuffling people around,” Leblanc added.
However, there is no obvious solution to the remaining impasse over housing. Echoing McKenzie, Leblanc believes people should be living on site for an extended length of time and it is not realistic to bus people in. “The odds of a person showing up the second or third day in a row are almost zero,” he said, adding that people need to see rehabilitation successes among their peers to give them a sense of hope and the impetus to make changes.
It is a wasted opportunity on so many levels, Leblanc said sadly.
*December 18 UPDATE: The BC government has turned over the Woodwynn Farm property to the Tsartlip First Nation which once harvested medicines and hunted in its former cedar forest.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith