A high demand for emergency shelter in the Greater Vancouver area has some operators turning people away.
“I would say for every person who calls in, there are probably about a half dozen plus people who are turned away,” said Irene Jaakson of the Lookout Emergency Aid Society, which runs shelters in Vancouver, the North Shore, and New Westminster.
She said the society's shelters are all operating at full capacity. When people are turned away, staff typically refer them to another shelter, such as one of the HEAT or extreme weather sites, said Jaakson.
However, she argued there needs to be a better balance of shelters in the suburb areas.
“One thing we really need to do better I think with the Vancouver shelter system is to create more of a geographic balance,” Jaakson told the Straight by phone today (December 20).
“At the end of the day, it’s not a choice to be homeless—it’s an absence of choice,” she added. “But fundamentally, I think people have a right to receive shelter in their home community, and if somebody isn’t able to access shelter in their home community, they might not be particularly likely to go into a neighbouring community, because it’s not their home.”
Dave Burgess, the senior house supervisor at the Richmond House shelter, echoed the need for a wider distribution of shelter space, noting that the Downtown Eastside isn’t the only area of the city with a homeless problem.
The small Richmond shelter has been turning away about four or five people every day.
“I don’t think everybody wants to go downtown or should be downtown,” he told the Straight by phone. “It’s just not a safe place for a lot of them.”
Another concern among some shelter operators is the growing number of “working poor” who are seeking emergency shelter.
At the Gateway Shelter in Surrey, demand for the organization’s housing assistance program has been high.
Executive director Shayne Williams said over the last two years, 640 people have been set up with housing through the program.
The shelter has also seen a shift in the demographics of its clientele, with more young families and working poor seeking assistance.
“We have been very successful at housing people, so we’re seeing kind of a new demography of folks, a lot of young families, a lot of working poor, a lot of new immigrants as well,” he told the Straight.
Over recent weeks, the shelter has seen such a high need for its meal program that they have had to turn people away without food.
“Unfortunately we have had to turn folks away without and we’ve ran out of food,” said Williams. “It’s been a tough winter for many folks.”
Williams said the shelter has faced about a 30 percent drop in monetary and food donations.
“It’s always a stretch,” he said. “We rely on donations and community support.”
Other organizations are seeing a similar decline.
The number of food and clothing donations at the Richmond shelter this year have been “way down”, according to Burgess.
“Normally we’re getting all kinds of phone calls by this time of year, and it just hasn’t happened,” he said.
Jaakson said the city is seeing an increasing number of families and seniors who are homeless. While some people are staying for short periods, an increasing number of shelter users are staying for many weeks, she said.
“It’s not acceptable to me that people are having to live in shelters and what we’re seeing is that emergency shelters have become housing, and that’s a problem,” she said.
Update (December 21): Kathie Chiu, the executive director of the Caring Place shelter in Maple Ridge, said the shelter's 25 beds have typically been full, and with an additional 30 seasonal mats they are running at about 80 percent occupancy.
Chiu said while the shelter hasn't had to turn anyone away, staff have sometimes put people up in a chair for the night or set them up with a blanket if they run out of mat space.
"It's not like there's another shelter down the street they can go to," she told the Straight. "We will do what we can to make sure people aren't left out when it's really cold and wet."
Chiu said the shelter has also seen a "dramatic" increase in use of their meal program, and a rise in the number of families with children, seniors and working couples from the Maple Ridge community.
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