Homeless in Vancouver: Kitsilano has lost its only emergency men’s homeless shelter

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      Usually, it’s affordable housing that is lost to redevelopment but sometimes it’s houses of worship and irreplaceable shelter beds.

      The church at 1805 Larch Street in Kitsilano, which has doubled as an Extreme Weather Response (EWR) homeless shelter for many winters, is up for sale for an undisclosed price. No surprise—it’s 25 beds are nowhere to be seen in the November 3 announcement of Vancouver EWR shelters for the winter of 2017-18, made by the B.C. Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

      EWR shelters only open in response to a community extreme weather alert, so they are not reliably open every night. All the same, the 25-bed, part-time EWR shelter at St Mark’s has been the only emergency shelter that homeless men in Kitsilano and Fairview have ever had, to my knowledge.

      I understand that every night it was open in the winter of 2016-17, St. Mark’s EWR shelter hosted at 10 least homeless men. And the one night last winter when it should’ve been open but wasn’t, I certainly heard about it later from my homeless peers.

      Now St. Mark’s isn’t listed as an EWR shelter at all. Now there is no emergency shelter for homeless men of any sort on the West Side of Vancouver.

      And what’s worse, the long-time EWR shelter at the Tenth Avenue Alliance Church, on 11 West 10th Avenue, in Mount Pleasant, is also not included in this winter’s list of EWR shelters. That’s another 25 beds gone.

      What’s going on?

      Signs of confusion behind the scenes

      My October 27 email to St. Mark’s Church in Kitsilano has so far gone unanswered. But I did receive a reply of sorts on October 30, from Rajvir Rao, managerof public Affairs and communications for B.C. Housing (the provincial agency responsible for funding EWR shelters):

      “Each winter, the Province works with communities and non-profit housing providers to provide additional shelter spaces to ensure everyone has access to a safe, warm place at night. The Extreme Weather Response (EWR) shelter program will be in effect this winter. BC Housing is currently in the process of finalizing agreements with our non-profit providers.

      EWR shelters are in addition to the 10 Winter Response Shelter sites, providing more than 300 additional spaces in Vancouver that the Province announced this week. Winter Response shelter beds are available during the winter season, generally operating overnight. The extreme weather response shelter program typically starts on November 1st and runs through to March 31st. These shelter beds are made available when a community issues an extreme weather alert; that is, when weather conditions threaten the health and safety of individuals experiencing homelessness.

      Making sure people who are homeless have a warm and dry place to stay during the winter and during extreme weather conditions is a priority for  the B.C. Government. Details around extreme weather response shelter beds and additional winter shelter locations across the province will be coming very soon.”

      Rao’s reply completely dodges my direct questions regarding the loss of the St. Mark’s shelter beds. But it suggests some confusion and scrambling behind the scenes on the part of a new NDP government trying to quickly come to grips with the responsibilities of the huge B.C. Housing organization.

      Rao admits that EWR shelter arrangements, which should have been in place in two days (by November 1) were still being finalized October 30 and would be “coming very soon”.

      In fact, the EWR shelters were announced four days later, on November 3. And in fairness it should be added that in previous years EWR shelter announcements have occurred more toward the middle of November.

      But the idea that this year’s winter shelter arrangements may have been somewhat hurried and last minute is further bolstered by the prompt reply I received November 5 from Bob Swan, a contact for the EWR shelter at the Tenth Avenue Church, which begins:

      “I have just learned from you that 10th Ave Alliance is not an EWR shelter this year.”

      The provincial ship of state changes course on winter shelters

      On November 3 four Vancouver EWR shelters were announced, all located in downtown:

      • Directions Youth Resource Centre, 1138 Burrard St., youth only
      • First Baptist Church, 969 Burrard St.
      • Belkin House, 555 Homer St.
      • Evelyne Saller Centre, 320 Alexander St.

      This is compared to the nine EWR shelters announced November 17, 2016, two of which were located far south of the downtown core—one on the West Side (St. Mark’s) and another in Mount Pleasant (Tenth Avenue Alliance Church):

      • Directions Youth Resource Centre, 1138 Burrard St.—15 spaces, youth only
      • Men’s Hostel, 828 Cambie St.—24 spaces, men only
      • First Baptist Church, 969 Burrard St.—25 spaces
      • Gathering Place, 609 Helmcken St.—40 spaces
      • Belkin House, 555 Homer St.—20 spaces
      • St. Mark’s Extreme Weather Shelter, 1805 Larch St.—25 spaces
      • Tenth Avenue Alliance Church, 11 West 10th Ave.—25 spaces
      • Harbour Light (overflow site), 119 E Cordova St.—40 spaces
      • Evelyne Saller Centre (overflow site), 320 Alexander St.—40 spaces

      This year’s reduced number of four EWR shelters are in addition to 10 winter shelters, offering some 300 beds, announced on October 25—many of which are said to be open 24/7.

      Six of the winter shelters are in the downtown peninsula, three are in the Downtown Eastside, and one is located in Strathcona.

      Of note is the fact that this year’s larger number of full-time winter shelters includes four locations that were only part-time EWR shelters last year: 828 Cambie, 119 East Cordova, 609 Helmcken, and 1138 Burrard.

      To repeat, EWR shelters are not a resource that homeless people can really count on because they only open when a responsible community coordinator feels that the weather is extreme enough to call an extreme weather alert and in Vancouver this seems to be an especially subjective call.

      On Boxing Day, December 26, 2016, for example, as the temperature dropped below zero in Vancouver and snow fell, the city’s EWR coordinator apparently still did not feel that conditions were extreme enough because no extreme weather alert was issued.

      That evening, as several homeless people later complained to me, the St. Mark’s EWR shelter did not open its doors (no EWR alert and B.C. Housing won’t pay the overhead of opening a EWR shelter).

      Then again, in the depths of the shock winter of 2016-17, the City of Vancouver ended up opening temporary 24-hour warming spaces in several community centres located outside of the downtown core, including the Creekside Community Centre at Olympic Village, the Britannia Community Centre on Commercial Drive and, for a time, the False Creek Community Centre.

      Part-time vs. full-time emergency shelters

      It is difficult to compare available winter shelter bed hours from year to year but clearly the new NDP government has opted to fund fewer part-time EWR shelters in favour of funding more of the full-time winter shelters that are open reliably every night, if not all day and all night.

      Shifting the balance in favour of full-time and round-the-clock shelters should work out to more actual winter shelter bed hours being available than ever before, which is definitely a change for the better.

      And it must be remembered that the winter shelters and the EWR shelters are in addition to all-year shelters, which can best be seen on B.C. Housing’s Emergency Shelter Map.

      One thing, however, has not changed for the better this year and that is shelter location. The majority of all emergency winter shelter capacity is still located in the downtown core of Vancouver, as can be seen at a glance on this Google map of winter shelter locations.

      In fact, all extra winter shelter capacity for homeless men south of 1st Avenue has effectively disappeared, thanks to the loss of the 25 beds of  St. Mark’s, at 1805 Larch Street, on the West Side of Vancouver, along with the 25 beds of the 10th Avenue Alliance Church, at 11 West 10th Avenue, in Mount Pleasant.

      The only thing for men south of 1st Avenue are 71 year-round beds at the Yukon shelter, located at 5th and Yukon and these are usually spoken for.

      The only other Vancouver shelters farther south are one at West 15th and Cypress, with 15 year-round beds for women and families, and another at East 16th and Sophia, with 32 year-round beds for women and children.

      No homeless men south of False Creek—that count anyway

      The bottom line is that any increase in winter shelter capacity has been accompanied by a significant reduction in the area served.

      Meaning that there is little good news here for homeless people who choose to stay in any of the 20 Vancouver neighbourhoods other than the West End and the Downtown Eastside.

      Put yourself in the shoes of a homeless person in Collingwood, Killarney, or Kerrisdale, who is faced with a forecast (or the sudden fact) of harsh winter weather.

      Would you roll the dice and take the very long trip, through whatever worsening weather there was—perhaps pushing your shopping cart—to see if there was a shelter bed to be had somewhere downtown? Or would you stay in the area where you feel safest and most sure of yourself and just hunker down and trust to your wits and luck?

      Personally, I wouldn’t go downtown. I would do what I had to in order to stay warm in Fairview, the neighbourhood of my choice.

      Every homeless people in Fairview I’ve spoken to about these winter shelter arrangements agrees about staying on the south side of False Creek come what may; they also agree that there is a dark pattern at work here.

      Authorities, it is believed, are purposely constraining access to shelters and other homeless services to the downtown core in order to “encourage” homeless people to abandon the richer neighbourhoods of Vancouver, in favour of the Downtown Eastside—economic cleansing if you will.

      Be that as it may.

      If this increase in downtown winter shelter capacity doesn’t much help homeless people south of False Creek, we can only hope that it doesn’t hurt us either, which means, I think, crossing our fingers and looking forward to a mild winter.