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Council candidates fight the chill on winter shelters

The timing of the provincial government’s decision not to fund four emergency shelters in Vancouver this winter, just a month…

The timing of the provincial government’s decision not to fund four emergency shelters in Vancouver this winter, just a month before the municipal elections, put effectively yet another housing issue on the ballot.

Robertson and Anton promised to fight for all winter shelters at the mayoral debate.

BC Housing, citing the most recent homeless count and a focus on supporting more permanent housing solutions, announced on Oct. 11 that it would only finance three out of seven so-called “lower barrier winter shelters.”

The decision could mean leaving as many as 160 people seeking a place to sleep out in the cold.

In a debate held on Nov. 7, candidates for Vision Vancouver and the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) said they were committed to lobbying the provincial government to fund the other four.

In other words, Vancouver’s homeless population as well as churches and other organizations that provide them with services are now counting on the politicians to convince the province to change its mind.

Shelters become political hot topic

The affected shelters were set up under Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Homeless Emergency Action Team (HEAT) initiative, which was started in December 2008.

Most of the $1.5 million in funding came from the city, the province and the Streetohome Foundation.

The first four, in the downtown core and the Downtown Eastside, opened in December of that year and closed in the spring of 2009. Two of them, Stanley / New Fountain Hotel on West Cordova Street and the Aboriginal Central Street Shelter on Central Street, along with First United Church on East Hastings, were then turned into year-round shelters for 340 people.

First United Church has become a main refuge for Vancouver’s homeless people.

At the same time, the city expanded the program, opening up additional shelters in Kitsilano, Mount Pleasant, Northeast False Creek and the West End. Taken together, the seven shelters provided space for 500 people.

The city council aimed to re-open the additional four lower barrier shelters to meet this December, but the provincial government has thwarted those plans.

According to the Metro Vancouver Homeless Count as of March 2011, there was an 82 per cent decrease in street homelessness in Vancouver between 2008 and 2011, leaving just 145 people unsheltered, or sleeping on the streets.

That figure, combined with the erection of 309 new supportive apartments this year and an increase of 100 spaces in so-called “extreme weather response shelters” has prompted BC Housing to decide there is no need to fund the four lower barrier shelters. That’s despite the most recent weather forecasts predicting one of the coldest winters in the past 20 years.

Don Evans, co-chair of the initiative “End Homelessness Now”, which tries to educate people about this topic, raises money and constantly lobbies politicians, called BC Housing’s decision “a big mistake”.

With churches not able to pick up the slack and existing shelters maxed out, he said: “You’d end up with people out on the street and some of these people would probably die during the winter.”

The candidates respond

On Oct. 18, Councillor Kerry Jang put forward a motion asking the province to reverse its decision. It was approved unanimously, opening the way for lobbying BC Housing.

“I’ll use any method possible, from hard data to political pressure by the mayor and of course, myself,” Jang said. The city needs around $2 million from the province to cover operational costs used to keep all seven of the shelters open.

NPA’s mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton said during the homelessness debate at the beginning of November that “a shelter was not a home” and that the focus should be on building more permanent housing units.

Nevertheless, she agreed that the province needed to provide funds to re-open the lower barrier shelters this winter.

Comparison of shelters offered by the city and the province

Lower Barrier Winter Shelters

  • Created by Mayor Gregor Robertson’s initiative “Homeless Emergency Action Team” (HEAT) in 2008
  • Located in churches and/or empty office buildings
  • Currently three permanent shelters: First United Church, Stanley/New Fountain Hotel and Aboriginal Central Street
  • Capacity of 340 beds
  • Opened every winter, regardless of temperature
  • Generally open between Dec. 1 and March 31/April 30 (depending on funding)
  • Available 24/7, beds can be reserved
  • No rules regarding drugs/alcohol, pets, etc.; storage for personal belongings available

Extreme Weather Response Shelters

  • Created by BC Housing as part of “Emergency Housing” initiative in 2005
  • Mostly in places such as church basements, e.g. First Baptist Church
  • Currently nine shelters in the city, though locations rotate
  • Capacity of about 1,000 beds around Vancouver
  • Only opened in winter when certain temperature is reached
  • Generally open between Nov. 1 and March 31 (subject to change)
  • Typically available from 6 p.m. until the next morning
  • Rules include no intoxication, no pets or belongings allowed; no storage available