News / Vancouver

Vancouver's low-barrier winter shelters offer respite from the street

As Vancouver struggles to cope with rising number of homeless, the total number of shelter beds still falls short of housing everyone

Sean Spear, associate director of RainCity Housing: a converted garden store at Hornby and Pacific will offer 40 beds in a low-barrier shelter

Jen St. Denis

Sean Spear, associate director of RainCity Housing: a converted garden store at Hornby and Pacific will offer 40 beds in a low-barrier shelter

For the past few months, he’s been sleeping in a tent in a city park in Vancouver’s West End neighbourhood.

But as he packed up his tent in the pouring rain on Wednesday morning under the watchful eye of two park rangers, Matt, 31, said he might be willing to move into one of the emergency winter shelters that have been added to neighbourhoods like the Downtown Eastside, Commercial Drive and the West End.

The City of Vancouver opens its last emergency winter shelter on December 1, bringing the total number of additional spots to 195. But as the city struggles to cope with the highest number of homeless people in 10 years, the total number of shelter beds still falls short of housing everyone who is living on the street.

“When we did the homeless count in March 2016, we found over 500 people on the street in Vancouver,” said Abigail Bond, director of housing policy for the City of Vancouver. “We’re opening up 195 shelter spaces this year, but we still do anticipate that there may be people who aren’t able to find a warm, safe place to sleep.”

Sean Spear of RainCity Housing shows the bedding and mats ready for the shelter's opening on Dec. 1

Jen St. Denis

Sean Spear of RainCity Housing shows the bedding and mats ready for the shelter's opening on Dec. 1

Bond added that the city will continue to work with BC Housing, which provides the funding to operate the winter shelters, to add more capacity in the coming months.

The former Art Knapp garden store at 1401 Hornby near the north side of the Burrard Street Bridge will offer 40 beds in a low-barrier shelter that will be operated by RainCity Housing and open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Hornby Street shelter and another 40-bed shelter at 1st Avenue and Commercial Drive, also operated by RainCity, welcome couples, dogs, allows drug use and have storage space for shopping carts and other belongings.

“There are other shelters where you have to line up at night and then you’re out in the daytime, and you have to repeat that pattern day after day,” said Sean Spear, associate director of RainCity Housing. “When you come in here, we work with you around getting into housing, people have an opportunity to rest, eat and deal with the health issues they may be living with.”

The goal is to have high turnover in the shelter as people are helped to find permanent housing, Spear said.

Last week, the city shut down a tent city that had been located on a city-owned vacant lot at 58 W. Hastings Street for the past five months, arguing it had become unsanitary and dangerous. When some of the former residents and activists moved to Thornton Park across from Pacific Central Station to set up a new tent city, park rangers and police moved quickly to take the tents down the next morning. Seven people were arrested and briefly detained by police.

Marisa Abraham sets up her tent in Thornton Park on Nov. 24.

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

Marisa Abraham sets up her tent in Thornton Park on Nov. 24.

In a previous interview with Metro, DJ Larkin, a lawyer with Pivot Legal, said it’s become common to see police and city workers moving people who sleep outside along. It amounts to “displacing people every day,” she said. Larkin believes the city should allow and provide services to a tent city as one tool to deal with the situation.

“There are hundreds of people on the street,” she said. “Just last week I watched (bylaw officers) throwing out people’s belongings. I watched police moving someone out from under a bridge. We watched people being evicted from a park.”

When people are tenting in parks, the city’s homeless outreach team approaches first to offer help, and park rangers then ask them to leave in the morning, Bond said.

The outreach workers are trying to convince people to come inside, Bond said, because “we find that people make much better decisions about their future once they’ve been inside for a few days.”

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