The flood of homeless campers from a tent city at Oppenheimer Park has strained the resources of a homeless shelter in the Downtown Eastside.
The Christian-based Harbour Light had to scramble to take in the additional numbers as the camp was dismantled in mid-October, even though it has housed homeless people for decades.
The shelter rushed to find additional beds, make physical alterations to spaces, and move existing residents from one building to another. But it also had to ramp up efforts to cope with an unusual range of mental health needs.
Outreach worker Blake Edwards said staff didn’t have the proper training to deal with some of the new arrivals, particularly when it came to mental health issues.
“We’re doing the best we can,” said Edwards. “Our system is stressed…it’s frustrating.”
From trickle to a wave
When people were evicted from Oppenheimer Park Oct. 16, many came to Harbour Light. It turned out to be more than the shelter had anticipated.
The new beds were filled almost immediately, with the shelter having to turn people away.
Those arriving from the park who did receive a space were housed together in new bunk-beds funded by BC Housing.
To cope with the influx of new people, the Salvation Army-funded shelter renovated one of its four emergency shelters and relocated some of its long-term residents to the renovated space across the street.
It also had to hired new staff and adjusted its meal schedule.
“There was a trickle of people coming in,” said emergency shelter manager Kevin Hawken. “But as the deadline approached, it was a wave.”
The shelter didn’t know how many people would seek refuge. For Hawken though, the biggest challenge was not the number of people but how quickly the shelter had to adapt itself to open the 30 spaces so quickly.
It was a big group arriving all at once. But shelter worker Graydon McMullen believed it was nothing the staff could not handle. “[The] mechanics of moving people around was stressful but we rose to the occasion,” he said.
Officials estimated the week before the eviction that 150 people were staying in the tent city, though not all of them went to shelters after being removed.
The next hurdle for Harbour Light will be when its cold and wet weather shelter opens on Nov. 1. It will provide overnight shelter for 40 people, as well as evening and morning snacks.