First United Church, Union Gospel Mission, Citywide Housing Coalition, and Kerry Jang on state of homeless during cold wave

photo by popeye logic

Since the cold snap hit,  First United Church and Union Gospel Mission have each seen an increase in numbers. The number of guests at First United Church increased from around 250 to 300  on some of the recent frigid nights. Last winter, the numbers rose to 350 people, Ric Matthews of First United Church, said.

Union Gospel has added a third shelter worker to cope with the added demand, bringing their capacity from 37 to 60 but they haven't yet reached the maximum. "It’s a strange thing but we were at 45 people last week and on Friday it dropped to 30. This week, we have had 30-something people staying with us each night,"  Derek Weiss, Union Gospel Mission (UGM) spokesperson, said. He suggested that people were going to the HEAT shelters provided by the city or staying with friends instead.

But some activists are still concerned that spaces are not being provided fast enough. "Where are people supposed to go before December when these four emergency shelters are opened?" asked Rider Cooey, of the Citywide Housing Coalition. He claimed that he has struggled to find accurate information from the city. "They’ve sent me lists that are inaccurate and incomplete," he said.

The city is working as fast as it can," Councillor Kerry Jang said. "We’re rushing like mad to get the shelters open within days. We know we need the shelters because people are freezing. If we don't provide shelter people will end up trying to go to jail or in the emergeny rooms."

When temperatures dropped last Thursday, extra shelter spaces were provided in the city through the Extreme Weather Response Program. The program, funding largely by BC Housing, is intended to act as an overflow for the regular shelter system.

“Why is it that we are in this position again, just like we were last winter?” Irene Jaakson, coordinator of the Response Program, said. “It’s not a cookie cutter type of solution. There are a number of kinds of housing that are required. Some need transitional housing, others need permanent housing with support or permanent housing without support.”

Certain neighbourhoods in Vancouver are in greater need of housing than others, Jaakson said. "We're very good at clustering our homeless people in this city." Their shelter in the Downtown East Side has not reached capacity, likely due to other support services in the neighbourhood. But the Response Program's Kitsilano shelter was almost at full capacity last night.

Part of the problem facing those working with the homeless is spreading the word about newly opened shelters,  Matthews of First United Church, said. "The bodies don't necessarily get into the spaces. The new shelters do not necessarily fit the demographics."

Matthews said that an integrated strategy, with better communication between the various agencies and governments, is needed to provide the necessary support to homeless people. Although the BC Housing Agency coordinates support services for the homeless, there is no body that is responsible for guiding them, he said.

“Without a national housing strategy it’s difficult to have a provincial or a local one. We need a comprehensive strategy that has teeth. Without it, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes,” Matthews said.

Weiss called on the federal government to increase its involvement in providing solutions to the housing crisis on a national scale. His organization supports Bill C304, which calls for a national housing strategy that would ensure secure, adequate, accessible and affordable housing for all Canadians. The Bill, introduced by Libby Davies, is undergoing a third reading in the House of Commons.

The federal government's lack of commitment to funding for housing is embarrassing, Jang said. "It's a band-aid solution. We've got to get the federal government to pony up."

The province will provide up to 1.5 million toward the four new emergency shelters and the city will contribute $500, 000 for the shelter building operations, including maintenance and upkeep. The shelters will open in early December in yet to be determined locations.

The city has been talking to the province since last year about the issue of emergency shelters, but only now have they been able to move forward, Jang said.

Housing Minister Rich Coleman did not return VO's request for an interview.

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