Colwood bylaw officers simply didn’t feel right about a job they were tasked with this summer.
“We (were) really uncomfortable with this. This (felt) wrong,” said Kevin Atkinson, senior bylaw enforcement officer with the City.
After a series of complaints, Atkinson and his staff were given no choice but to issue an eviction notice for a couple that were living in an RV on a Heaslip Place property. It’s a job Atkinson has had to perform before and a scenario that’s become increasingly common in light of Greater Victoria’s rental woes. But this one felt different because of the couple in question, he said.
Mary Ann LaRoche and her longtime partner, Dave Gilliland, had been living in a brand new 33.5-foot RV on property owned by LaRoche’s son. By multiple accounts, most of their neighbours took little issue with their presence, but the couple’s setup did fall on the wrong side of Colwood’s secondary suites bylaw.
What made this couple especially unique is Gilliland’s background as an engineer in the Canadian Armed Forces and his significant mobility issues that are the result of multiple sclerosis.
Atkinson and the City didn’t press the file until the complaints continued and they were forced to act, eventually notifying the couple that they would have to leave the site.
“For us, this just struck a chord. Here is an individual that has served honourably in the Canadian Forces and through no fault of his own, he’s in a situation that is very unpleasant, and what do you do?” an emotional Atkinson said.
LaRoche and Gilliland had their own reactions to the news that they had to find a new home.
“I almost had a nervous breakdown … I was crying, I was upset, I was wondering how I was going to do it,” LaRoche said.
“I was all set to be a squatter … I was going to stay,” said Gilliland, noting with a laugh that it wouldn’t look good for authorities to arrest “the cripple in a wheelchair and put that on the front of the news.”
While the region’s expensive rental market didn’t help matters, the couple had other factors working against them. Firstly, they needed to find a place that was accessible for Gilliland. Secondly, they needed rental accommodation that would allow them to keep their two dogs, a whippet/greyhound mix and a German shepherd.
Meanwhile, bylaw officers and City of Colwood staff weren’t satisfied with simply letting this issue go, and they brainstormed on how they could solve what was quickly becoming a heartbreaking scenario.
“We put our heads together and we said, ‘okay, who can we call?,’” Atkinson recalled.
The officers called contacts they had made in the community, eventually getting in touch with Russ Ridley, who forwarded their call to Angus Stanfield, the director and board chair of the Cockrell House Society.
Cockrell House’s mission is to provide safe, transitional housing for ex-military personnel. Ridley is a longtime supporter and, until recently, owned its 11-unit Colwood facility.
Russ, along with his brother Robb, had also donated two condo units at their Pacific View project on Belmont Road to the society, with the agreement that the tenants would have a military connection and the market rate rent would go towards funding the society.
“On our mother’s side we come from a military background … we wanted to do something for the (Belmont Park) neighbourhood, recognizing that they are military,” Russ said.
With that, the wheels began to turn on finding LaRoche and Gilliland an appropriate place to live.
The couple was soon given a tour of the spacious one-bedroom condo at Pacific View and an instant sense of relief settled over them.
“We walked in and it was just like, ‘oh my God I can’t believe it.’ We are so lucky. This was meant to be and we’re quite happy here,” LaRoche said.
She and Gilliland weren’t the only ones who felt that way.
“We were very pleased, beyond words, that (they) were accepted in Pacific View … we’re glad that was the outcome. That’s the outcome that we need more of, not just for veterans, but for everybody,” Atkinson said.
He credits Colwood council and staff with allowing the bylaw officers to think outside of the box while trying to solve this predicament.
“To be good people, you have to go above and beyond and we did what we thought was right. We did what we thought any other human being would do,” he said.
“I am only one of many wheels within the City of Colwood and with the blessings of mayor and council, they very much trust their staff to think with a common sense approach and put people first.”
LaRoche and Gilliland are grateful to the many people involved in finding them their new home.
The strata fees for the condo were originally supposed to be waived, but when they found out that all of their rent went to the Society, they volunteered to pay both the rent and the strata fees.
Now that they are settled in, the stress has evidently been washed away for the couple.
“It’s a beautiful view, you get to see the mountains and ocean at night sitting out on the deck … it’s a lot easier for (Gilliland) to get around,” LaRoche said.
“This has been a blessing … it’s helped our relationship, it’s relieved a lot of stress. Those are all good things.”