Savannah Simmons was a 16-year-old kid suffering from a drug addiction who was sure she would end up dead on Nelson’s streets.
Instead, Simmons was granted an apartment at Cicada Place. Staff at the youth-housing building guided her through rehab, and when she left the program three years later she was clean and healthy.
Now 32, Simmons has a husband, six kids and a life she once thought she’d never have without the help she received.
“I honestly wouldn’t be alive without them,” she says.
Simmons was one of many former tenants and staff visiting Cicada Place on Wednesday to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the building that has saved so many lives in Nelson.
The 10-unit building at 605 Lake St., which is managed by Nelson Community Services, has housed 199 clients since it opened. The program accepts tenants aged 16 to 22 at the time of entry and also has three two-bedroom units prioritized for single parents.
Tenants can stay up to two years and pay $375 in rent and utilities for a single occupant, $570 for a parent and a child, or $660 for a parent with two children — far lower than the monthly average $965 spent on rent and utilities by Nelson residents according to 2016 census.
The initial idea for a youth-specific building in Nelson is nearly 30 years old. At the time, Joyce Dahms’ job for Nelson Community Services was to find housing for youths as well as run a weekly life skills meeting.
Her clients, she says, were too young to be on their own.
“When you envision that first place, reality sinks in,” says Dahms, now Cicada Place’s program manager. “Even if they come from situations where there was chaos at home, at least it was people to interact with. All of a sudden they are lonely in these places. Often they would set themselves up to be exploited, taken advantage of just because they didn’t want to be alone.”
Nelson Community Services applied for a grant through BC Housing to fund a feasibility study for a youth-housing building, which was to be the first of its kind in B.C.
The process from grant application to construction, Dahms says, took about seven years. Originally the apartments were to be built on top of the Nelson and District Youth Centre. When planning turned to development across the street from the youth centre, BC Housing stipulated the new building should have a balcony (which Nelson Community Services fought). There was also debate if 20 units should be built instead of 10.
The size of the rooms was also contentious. One-bedroom apartments at Cicada are 650 square feet, which were criticized for being too large. BC Housing requested the size in case the project failed and the building could be converted to seniors housing.
Cicada Place opened in 1999. BC Housing funds the building’s maintenance, the Ministry of Children and Family Development funds programming and assists with rent subsidies, and Nelson Community Services employs the building’s staff.
The program stipulates tenants have to be in school or working (Nelson Community Services considers parenting a full-time job), and requires participation in a life skills group.
“They know we’re not landlords,” says Dahms. “This is a program they come into. There are expectations. … We have rules about no drugs or alcohol even if you’re over 19. There has to be that buy-in.”
Cicada Place has been a life changer for the tenants who do buy-in.
For Simmons, the safe space and staff helped her start over. “It meant a lot. At least I was living on the streets. I had food in my stomach. I had all the workers who could help me establish myself and my life.”
Nelson native Sam Doman was 17 when she moved into the building in 2004. “For people starting out, if you’re fortunate enough to qualify to get in, it’s like a golden ticket basically,” says Doman.
Doman left Cicada Place in 2006. Six years later she bought a home in Fairview, which she says she wouldn’t have thought possible while living at Cicada.
“God no! No. No. Not at all. When I came through these doors I was a ball of mess. When I came out of these doors I was a little bit better. They help. It’s huge.”
Dahms concedes the need for youth housing in Nelson is far greater than what Cicada Place can provide. A 2018 point-in-time homeless count found 32 per cent of respondents to a survey were under 24. Fifty-six per cent meanwhile said they first experienced homelessness before they were 19.
“The need is there. Everyone knows the need is there,” said Dahms. “Part of the issue is getting not just the building funds but programming funds because the key to this being a success is we have staff here.
“If this was just an apartment building for youth, I don’t know what we’d be looking at today. But the fact that there are staff here, the kids feel supported, that’s where we make it [work].”