Province to pay for 42 winter shelter beds in Vancouver

November 29, 2011

After weeks of turning down Vancouver's pleas for money to operate temporary winter shelters outside the city centre, Housing Minister Rich Coleman says B.C. will pay for a new 42-bed shelter in the downtown – but on province-owned, not city-owned land.

The ministry will open shelter beds in the Marble Arch Hotel on Richards Street – a hotel it bought several years ago as part of its drive to acquire permanent low-cost housing – as of mid-December, using a renovated space on the main floor that was once a bar.

Like the emergency winter shelters Vancouver launched three years ago, the province's new winter shelter will be open 24 hours a day and be run by a non-profit housing group that will provide support services.

It will be open to either couples or men only. Last week, Mr. Coleman announced a 26-bed women's shelter in the Downtown Eastside, which opened on Monday.

According to a source, the province is choosing this route for shelters because "we can manage it better in our portfolio from a financial perspective. We also think it gives the clients a better integration into the overall housing options."

The announcement is the latest in an odd tug-of-war between the city and the province over how to tackle homelessness.

Both are working intensively to reduce homelessness, but there are enormous backroom struggles over which way to do it, where the shelters are opened, and who is seen to be in control.

Until Vision Vancouver was elected, the province funded a certain number of permanent shelter beds in Vancouver.

It also provided money for "extreme weather" shelters during the winter that were operated by volunteers, only opened when the temperature dropped to two degrees below freezing or the rain was exceptionally heavy, and only opened late at night. Those factors led many homeless people to continue sleeping outside even when the shelters were open.

When Mayor Gregor Robertson took office in 2008, one of his first acts was to round up funding for an emergency 24-hour winter shelter at First United Church in the Downtown Eastside – and then, soon after, three more. All were operated with the minimum of rules about pets, shopping carts, drugs and attendance.

The province agreed to pay the operating costs, while the city provided the buildings other than the church.

Three shelters remained opened year-round. Then, the next two winters, the city asked for and got funding for four more shelters outside the downtown, but always after public scuffling between Mr. Robertson and Mr. Coleman every fall.

Mr. Robertson based part of his election campaign on his party's successful efforts at reducing street homelessness.

This fall, Mr. Coleman has been adamant as usual that he will not provide money for the 160 beds in the four shelters the city wants, which have operated in Mount Pleasant, Kitsilano, Granville Slopes and the West End near Stanley Park.

He says that with four new special social-housing projects having opened this past year – projects geared to the city's homeless population – and more set to open in the next few months, the shelters aren't needed.

The city insists they are, partly because existing shelters are full and turning people away, partly because the province's social-housing projects aren't taking in as many street homeless people as city officials had hoped.

As well, the city's housing expert says the shelters in Mount Pleasant, Kitsilano and the West End attract people who can't or won't travel downtown.

"We need something along that stretch of Broadway badly. People do live in communities there where they have structure and support. They are not going to be able to transport themselves to the Marble Arch," said Vancouver's homelessness co-ordinator, Judy Graves.

Vancouver is not the only city chafing at the province's shelter policies. Surrey council wants its extreme-weather shelters to change the rules and open as soon as temperatures hit the freezing mark.

"After consulting with the organizations that provide extreme weather services, we believe that when the temperature drops to zero those beds can and should be opened," Mayor Dianne Watts said.

(Ads will not print)