As the weather dips below zero on some January nights, Hope’s emergency shelter is turning away around 22 to 30 people per month.
The shelter, a 20-bed capacity, normally opens an additional 10 to 15 spaces during the months of November to March to run what is called an ‘extreme weather program.’ Even without a pandemic to complicate things, such an operation is pushing the limits of what the shelter can accomodate said Brian Dodd, shelter manager.
“Last year what we did was move the women out of our shelter to other spaces in the community, so we had other beds,” Dodd said. “Plus we opened up our garage…a heated garage where we put up eight cots, and if women did come into the house we put them up in the living room…It was very tight quarters during peak times.” Last winter 52 individuals came through the extreme weather program.
This year, COVID-19 has forced the shelter to host fewer guests in the space. Additional space is needed to do the extreme weather program, yet it simply doesn’t exist in Hope said executive director of the Hope and Area Transition Society (HATS) Gerry Dyble. HATS is the shelter operator, contracted by BC Housing to provide services to unhoused people in the community.
While securing space for the extreme weather program is the responsibility of the community where the program is held, Director of Regional Development for BC Housing Naomi Brunemeyer said that this year the housing agency lent a hand in the search. The initial idea was to put a trailer on the vacant land adjacent to the shelter to house the program, yet as that parcel of land was undergoing a rezoning application it was decided in consultation with the district that this wasn’t the right option Brunemeyer said. Other options being looked at include leasing a house, yet this hasn’t yet panned out. “[We] certainly have significant concern that a space is not going to be found before the end of the program,” she said.
“[HATS] reached out to faith-based organizations, motels, they’ve asked the district and other non-profits and have had no space made available to them,” Brunemeyer explained, as well as looking at the Hope rec centre which Dyble said isn’t an option for a variety of reasons.
HATS is operating 11 spaces at the shelter located at 650 Old Hope Princeton Way and 14 spaces at a local motel “so clearly that indicates that there is a significant lack. The last homeless count shows 69 people who were homeless or identified at risk of homelessness in Hope,” said Brunemeyer.
HATS also looked at how to provide services for people still living outdoors this winter. Washrooms are open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. and a shower has been set up outside the shelter, where those who arrive cold and wet are given a towel, toiletries and a change of clothes and can use the facility. The shelter is also running a ‘blanket exchange’, where people can bring a wet, dirty blanket and have it replaced by a clean, dry one. This initiative is aided by community donations, which Dodd said have been very generous.
The shelter is also serving over 200 hot meals a month to people who arrive at their door, in December this number was 274.
“There’s a lot of camps around the community, judging from the state of the people that are coming to the door, they’re cold and wet,” Dodd said of where unhoused people might be sleeping. And these camps have been the target of vandalism lately, in Hope and out as far as Laidlaw, with people returning to their tarps and tents to find their camp “trashed.” “In most cases, goods aren’t stolen, but the camp has been trashed,” Dodd said. “The stories that we’re hearing from the folks in the camps is that they feel targeted right now and the fact that they don’t know who is doing it is disturbing to them and to us.”
In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid epidemic is ongoing and a number of people connected to the shelter have overdosed in the last few months.
There are also two additional HATS support workers out from 4 p.m. to midnight Tuesday through Saturday until the end of March, in the absence of the extreme weather program. They can be reached at 604-869-1750.
What happens next with Hope’s only emergency shelter?
While the shelter is allowed to continue to operate until April 1, what happens next is still up in the air. A proposed rezoning of that property, a consolidated parcel of land currently zoned as highway commercial, to a site-specific zone for a shelter and supportive housing was struck down in a 4-to-1 vote by council in November. This vote also saw the effective veto of BC Housing’s plans to build a supportive housing apartment building on the same property.
B.C.’s Minister Responsible for Housing and Attorney General David Eby held individual phone calls with Hope’s councillors as well as Mayor Peter Robb Jan. 6. Councillors remarked on the calls as a positive step and uncommon for a government official at this level to undertake. Prior to his role as housing minister, Eby was a human rights lawyer who spent years advocating for residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside who were unsheltered or underhoused with Pivot Legal Society.
Council also went in camera on Monday, Jan. 11 to discuss “potential sites and further options to aid BC Housing moving forward” the mayor confirmed via email. BC Housing is reviewing alternate locations, Brunemeyer said, and if there is movement on finding an alternate location for a supportive housing build then this might “buy us some breathing room with respect to the shelter.”
“There are some sites available, not just sites that are available for purchase, that might be owned by some of our partners that we are investigating and hoping to be able to present those back to council soon,” she said.
The goal for BC Housing is to be able to co-locate the shelter and supportive housing Brunemeyer said, as this is better for staffing. A chosen site also needs to be an appropriate size and to be close to other services offered in the community.
“The ultimate decisions are out of our hands, we’re just simply the operator of the environment here in our community for BC Housing,” said Dodd. “We just have to hope that things will happen to support those who find themselves without shelter in our community.”
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