Greater Vancouver homeless shelters see increase in "working poor"

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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Dec 21, 2010 at 1:09am

with the lowest min. wage in Canada and one of the highest costs for purchasing and renting housing, of course we will have more homeless and more working more being homeless.
We do need more shelters/alternative housing for people in all the suburbs but the suburbs don't want the shelters. They don't want to understand homelessness is everywhere.
We don't have to look much further than the policies of the liberals these past ten years to see how it came about.


Dec 21, 2010 at 12:19pm

People should me moving to more affordable places to live if they can't make ends meet in a particular city. There are job opportunities out there. You may not be doing what you want to do, but you'll have a more comfortable life outside of work; which is what it's all about in the end.

shelters and transit - we are on the right track

Dec 21, 2010 at 12:39pm

Our politicians have it all figured out: more transit + more shelters = more people who would be better off starting off in small towns where the jobs are. Keep up the good work, Calcutta here we come.


Dec 21, 2010 at 2:43pm

Small towns are the worst places for people to look for jobs.I live in a small town and i have been going to the cities in Alberta for the last ten years to find work to make it.There is no work here ,not even welfare.


Dec 21, 2010 at 5:54pm

Tried Saskatoon, yet?

Avid Cyclist

Dec 21, 2010 at 11:12pm

If you all took transit and rode bicycles, we would not have to contend with the working poor commuting with their cars into our city.

Part of a sustainable lifestyle includes working in a community where cycling to work is possible and viable. I really resent these people coming here with their belching vehicles looking for work. They need to look closer to their own communities rather than destroy our culture and environment with a fundamentally non-viable way of life.

james green

Dec 22, 2010 at 7:14am

Making jokes and suggeting homeless people just need jobs or to move is crazy.
We are know a high percentage of homeless people are mentally ill and drug addicted and have many health problems.
Have a heart and a brain!

I read. Do you?

Dec 22, 2010 at 11:22am

To all those People who think homelessness is caused by a stubborn refusal go move to a cheaper place to work: you have no idea what you are talking about. People are homeless for many reasons but among the homeless mental illness is at epidemic levels. Maybe we should build more affordable housing for these severely mentally I'll because basically they're disabled. Maybe we should have more support staff to take em out and make sure they make it to appointments and don't get lured by drug dealers. And that's the other problem:addiction! Why the police can't have more powers to send someone to detox is beyond me. This city is full of self medicating mentally I'll people. Maybe if they went to Doctors and got on psych meds, we could wean them off their addictions but sadly even dtox is highly underfunded. Vancouver has over 10000 hard core Addicts but less than 150 detox beds open.
And now we see working people who have come to Vancouver to find work but can't afford the rent. We need to rapidly increase the supply of rental units in the city. Once vacancies exceed 3% well see rents come down and there will be more affordability at the bottom end.
What I've laid out is the most logical approach to this problem but most of the idiots sharing their opinions here don't seem to have the most basic education or understanding at what fuels this problem. And this is why BC has a growing homeless problem in every city. Educate thyselves!

unknown sample

Dec 22, 2010 at 12:21pm

Look, if these working poor cannot afford to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, then they should move elsewhere where they can afford housing, plain and simple.

Solutions by these vacuous social housing types reeks of outmoded ideology. I'm getting bored with james green's grandiose plans (assuming he is not trolling) to solve the homeless problem by throwing away other people's money.

The public will not stand for legions of bums from all over the country feeding off taxpayers of this region. The flow of hobos would never end. If you believe otherwise, you are dreaming in technicolour 3D.

@I read ... , do you think, too?

Dec 22, 2010 at 12:54pm

if you give too much, certain people just take advantage of it, welfare transit and housing are fine to a small degree, over-doing it leads to too many people on the streets and too much wasteful transit with people riding around on transit for joy rides ...