The B.C. government announced today (November 23) new funding for emergency homeless shelters in Vancouver, just as frigid temperatures placed increased demand on programs aiding those in need of a place to escape the cold.
Four temporary shelters are slated to open by early December, and will accommodate about 160 people, according to the Ministry of Public Safety.
The province will provide up to $1.5 million, while the City of Vancouver is contributing $500,000 toward the operation of the buildings.
Vision Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang told the Straight by phone the temporary shelters will be open 24 hours a day. They will be pet-friendly and will provide food and a safe place to store belongings.
The province currently funds 658 permanent shelter spaces in Vancouver, and there are approximately 340 spaces available in Vancouver’s HEAT shelters established last winter.
Extra shelter spaces have been added around the city after several days of cold temperatures, including up to 272 spots through the Extreme Weather Response Program.
Irene Jaakson, the coordinator of the program, said at this point there are enough spaces to meet the demand. However, she’s concerned that the cold winter expected to hit Vancouver will place pressure on shelter programs.
“A couple of years ago, when the weather was really, really harsh...there were about 45 or 50 extreme weather alerts called and staff and volunteers were exhausted,” Jaakson told the Straight by phone.
Jaakson said broader questions need to be asked, such as why there is such high demand for shelter.
“I think that rather than spending so much time talking about whether we’ll have enough space for a crisis response, we need to be putting that energy into having a conversation about why is it that people don’t have places that they can afford to live,” she said.
“We can’t keep debating a crisis response. We need to put that energy into the entire continuum of housing, of which safe, accessible shelter is one part.”
Downtown Eastside housing advocate Wendy Pedersen said there is a need for permanent housing solutions, and she wants to see welfare payments and the minimum wage increased. She said cold winter conditions are a health and safety concern for the homeless.
“People get sicker, and they take chances with sleeping with people that they shouldn’t sleep with—women are more in danger,” she told the Straight by phone. “And shelters aren’t adequate homes.”
Coun. Jang said the temporary shelters are a “Band-Aid solution”.
“They’re only here to deal with an immediate crisis,” he said. “They are not meant to be a solution, and the only solution is permanent housing.”
Six of 14 planned social-housing sites are currently under construction in Vancouver, Jang said.
Shelter spaces under the Extreme Weather Response Program typically open up when temperatures fall below -2 °C, or in conditions like freezing rain, high winds, and snow accumulation.
Under the program, outreach workers are also sent out to check on homeless people in downtown parks and to distribute information on extreme weather shelters.
Jodyne Keller, the homeless coordinator for the Vancouver police, told the Straight by phone that officers have been patrolling the city for homeless people during the cold temperatures, handing out blankets, and providing information on where to find shelter.