VICTORIA—Her day has just begun, but by the time she walks the single block from where she stows her bicycle to the grim Victoria sidewalk that is home for the people she helps, Millie Modeste has already comforted three homeless and addicted souls.

Lily weeps as Modeste assures her that bylaw officers will let her stay in her tent while she grieves her husband’s overdose death; Alan smiles when Modeste tells him she’s negotiating with a landlord on his behalf; and Ally gives her a hug for arranging a medical appointment to assess her scoliosis.

“Don’t worry,” Modeste tells her. “We will get you all fixed up.”

Under blankets and umbrellas some 40 people huddle on the north side of Pandora Street just west of Quadra. Gloria smokes crack in full view and two men ask Bill for a “20-piece” — about 0.2 grams of crack — as Modeste sits down with them. Nearly 70 others cluster in bunches on the south side of Pandora — the largest group are heroin addicts, Modeste says. The others mostly use meth or speed.

Modeste, a 53-year-old Inuit volunteer, once homeless and an addict herself, has devoted the last 12 months to helping unhoused crack-cocaine users almost daily on Pandora’s north side. The one-woman rescue crew is on a crusade to keep Victoria’s homeless people alive as deaths from toxic drugs take more lives in British Columbia than all other unnatural causes combined.

“I am one of the lucky ones … I was able to channel my skills and addiction,” Modeste says. “And this is what I am meant to do.”

Bill, who looks about Modeste’s age, shivers in a T-shirt as she assures him that bylaw officers, who confiscate belongings between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. to uphold the city’s new “no-camping” rules, will return his clothes and sleeping bag. Bill spent two days in hospital this week recovering from third-degree burns suffered when someone set his tent on fire. (The Star has changed names for safety.)

An electrician before becoming an addict, Bill says he trusts Modeste in a way he can’t trust officials or agency workers. “It’s really dark in the city now,” he says describing a sense of doom that envelops the community. “But Millie understands us.”

Armed with clothes, food and tents donated by her personal network, Modeste offers counselling to unhoused addicts. She helps people find housing and health care. She organizes art projects to combat depression and anxiety. She carries a Naloxone kit, containing an antidote to reverse the effects of opioid overdose, and uses it often.

“I just got my 21st life,” Modeste says. “That is 21 kids that would not be alive … I got them breathing.”

Modeste is lucky to be alive, too. Her mother, Bella, survived nine years of residential school in Aklavik, Northwest Territories, and returned in 1959 at age 15 to a plague of alcoholism and domestic abuse in her Inuvik home, Modeste says. Bella was beaten so severely when she was pregnant that Modeste was born prematurely, weighing just over two pounds.

As a young woman, Modeste struggled with alcoholism. But she “can count on one hand” her drinks in the past 10 years, she says. She uses crack in moderation now, she says. “I am a functioning addict.” Her husband, Jim Williams, a Sixties Scoop survivor, was addicted to crystal meth when she met him more than 25 years ago, he says, and still struggles from time to time.

In May 2020, when Modeste and Williams packed their possessions and started the drive from their long-time home in Kamloops, B.C., toward Victoria, they had no idea they would join Canada’s rising tide of homelessness and addiction. They also had no idea they would become part of trying to hold back that tide.

Modeste and Williams were not alone in deciding to make Victoria their new home when they were evicted in the spring of 2020. The B.C. capital — the warmest city in Canada — saw its homeless population grow to twice the homeless population per capita of Toronto and five times that of Vancouver in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unable to find affordable housing, Modeste and Williams settled into the city’s beloved Beacon Hill Park, near the town centre, with hundreds of others. They were lucky to have a van to live in, and not just a tent, Modeste says. “At night I heard women just bawling their eyes out, just wailing,” she remembers.

Tanya and her partner, Bridget, know Modeste from their days living in the park, they say. Modeste saw that food and garbage pickups were needed in the park and began to advocate for the community. She worked with Red Cedar Café to provide hot breakfasts and dinners to the campers. Together with Rose Henry, an advocate for the homeless known as Grandma Losah, Modeste and Williams held weekly meetings with park residents. By the fall of 2020, they had become known as the “mom and pop of Beacon Hill.”

Fifty-six-year-old Tanya looks like she would be more at home in a country club than on a dirty sidewalk. But Tanya overdosed just hours ago and was rescued by paramedics. She has been homeless on and off for 15 years and is grateful for Modeste’s support, she says as she accepts a sandwich from Modeste’s bag. “Millie goes the extra mile. She doesn’t judge and she always has a smile.”

Tanya says she is terrified by the overdose deaths that surround them on Pandora Street. As Victoria’s homeless population rose to record numbers, B.C.’s drug supply also became more deadly. The powerful opioid fentanyl, the leading cause of overdose death, now appears laced into more than 80 per cent of street drugs, and benzodiazepines, tranquilizers that can cause unconsciousness, in more than half — three times the rate of a year ago.

Fentanyl’s spread has been pushed by a drive for profits, according to Tanya. On each leg of the journey from cartel to end user, sellers often cut pure products such as heroin and cocaine with cheap powders, including fentanyl, to make the drugs cheaper and more addictive. There is no quality control. A dealer might cut fentanyl into cocaine that already contains benzos, creating a lethal dose, Tanya says.

Tanya and Bridget deal small quantities of crack and heroin to support their survival and try to take care that their products don’t hurt the community they love. They are mourning the death of their close friend Sarah, who was found dead in her apartment after an overdose. “The benzos are putting people to sleep.” Maybe that’s what happened to Sarah, Tanya says. “But then she was also sick. She had a bad abscess and she’d been sick for days.”

Deaths from toxic overdoses, homicides and fires skyrocketed in Victoria’s homeless communities in early 2021, inspiring a radical approach by the B.C. government to house the campers.

“Everyone knew something had to be done,” B.C. Attorney General David Eby said in an interview. He committed to find homes for all unhoused people in Victoria. But the city’s vacancy rate, which at one per cent was the lowest in Canada, required an innovative gamble.

The provincial government has since bought three hotels to shelter more than 300 people and developed 430 additional shelter spaces for people with complex needs, spending almost $130 million in a year. Together with the city of Victoria, it has also invested in affordable housing.

“Everyone pulled together to make it happen,” Eby said, noting that Victoria’s city councillors, police and residents have a culture of understanding and supporting vulnerable people. “Victoria is a unique city that way,” he says. “It wasn’t the approach of other cities.”

Even so, says Modeste, who was lucky to get a space in a subsidized apartment, many of Victoria’s unhoused are still suffering. More than 80 per cent are described by the province as “long-term homeless,” which means they have been unhoused for more than six months. Some are second and third-generation homeless, Modeste says.

Many of the people still homeless need more skilled addictions and mental health care than current services offer, advocates say. Gloria, a rape survivor, says she uses crack to treat her depression. “It’s an adrenal tonic” that helps with “severe stress trauma over long periods of time.”

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps told the Star that about 80 people with complex addiction and mental health needs are still living on the streets and another 80 have shelter but spend most of their time outdoors.

The progressive mayor’s mission “is to get functional zero homelessness by 2024,” she says. She hopes that Victoria can create enough supports and services that when someone becomes homeless — escaping domestic violence, for example — they would not be homeless for long. “It’s going to be a real push,” Helps says.

But as Help’s push continues, many unhoused people depend on Modeste’s support. Modeste “cares without judgment,” Gloria says. She is “a very warm, inspiring person.”

Gloria is white, as are most living on the north side of Pandora. The community is now better equipped to “accommodate the growing needs of First Nations communities.” Modeste says. “Now it’s the white people who are suffering from mental health and addictions in greater numbers. We need more support for them.”

A trained Indigenous teacher, Modeste works as a one-woman team with a Rolodex of supporters helping a mostly white community. Modeste has a direct line to Shannon Perkins, Victoria’s manager of bylaw and licensing services, as well as to nurses, donors, landlords, and addiction supports to get people the help they need. “I take the cases that nobody else has been able to solve.”

Employed until 2002 by myriad Indigenous social agencies, Modeste has reference letters citing her dedication, work ethic and professionalism. But Modeste says it felt wrong “making money off the poorest, most vulnerable people in our community.” Being a volunteer gives her credibility on the street. “I have been able to step between a knife fight because I developed those relationships,” she says.

With a voice as authoritative as Modeste is gentle, Sinan Demirel of Victoria’s Community Planning Social Council says that Modeste “has stepped in to fill gaps where social services are not meeting needs.” Victoria’s social services have been stretched beyond their limits by the pandemic and trauma of the toxic drug crisis, he says.

Addiction and mental health crises are lethal employment hazards for counsellors for the unhoused and first responders, according to Modeste. “I have no friends left alive who I have been honoured to call colleagues except one who is deeply addicted to heroin,” she says. “I am one of the lucky few to not have fallen victim to suicide or overdose.”

On Pandora, dusk is descending and a parade of young men, many in construction work clothes, stop to buy drugs on their way home from work. Modeste worries about them. “These men are dying in very high numbers,” she says, “because they aren’t near help if their drugs are toxic.” She tries to offer testing strips, which will identify fentanyl, but she has few precious strips and most of the men bolt away at too fast a clip.

Now that it is evening, Tanya frets about Bridget, who she says has overdosed five nights this week. She needs help, Tanya says. But Modeste laments that the wait is up to six months to get into a detox program and even longer for an in-patient treatment program. Bridget spent 12 months in jail for selling $20 worth of drugs to an undercover police officer in 2020. She is terrified to go back there.

But for now, Modeste distracts the group with planning a funeral for their friend Sarah. There have been so many deaths this winter that they had to hold a mass memorial in April at Echo Beach together with Grandma Losah, she says. Tanya wants to hold a private memorial for Sarah in a Pandora park and hopes the police won’t make the mourners move.

Tomorrow, Modeste will use her grocery money to buy art canvasses and paint “to raise some very hurt and afraid hearts,” she says. Twenty people on the block have asked to participate in an art activity she has planned. “How else do I make them believe in themselves when they feel so worthless not to have a home?” Modeste asks. “And despair breeds addiction.”

“Tomorrow my weapon against death will be paint. It’s all I can offer,” Modeste says. “So long as we have no one to take these lives to heart as they would their own child … we will have to watch them die.”

Katharine Lake Berz is a management consultant and writer on Vancouver Island and in Toronto.