Campbell River doesn’t have enough shelter beds, said a homeless person identifying herself only as Julie, as snow fell on Spirit Square on the evening of Feb. 14.
“It doesn’t even come close to the ratio of people that are homeless… especially for women,” she said.
Julie, 60, said she worked for the government for more than 20 years. She struggles with alcoholism and has been homeless for 1.5 years. Asked what happened, she said “rent!”
Cold weather is putting pressure on the limited number of shelter beds for homeless people in Campbell River.
Temperatures of -13 C on Feb. 10 and -15.5 on Feb. 11 were both all-time lows for those dates, according to Environment Canada records going back to 1965.
“The last couple of days have been the most severe I’ve seen,” said Kevin James, coordinator of the Campbell River Sobering and Assessment Centre, in a Feb. 13 interview.
Amid the frigid weather, beds at the facility have been filling up. The Sobering Centre, located downtown on the corner of 13th Avenue and Dogwood Street, has twin-sized mats on the floor for people who are intoxicated and willing to sleep.
People who sleep at the Sobering Centre are offered a pair of pajamas, laundry for the clothes on their back, snacks and a hot shower.
James has first-hand experience with the life-saving potential of an emergency shelter. He once struggled with homelessness in the B.C. Interior, and one night he fell asleep in bad weather. Someone woke him up, and he found a bed in a shelter similar to the Sobering Centre. He said a feeling of warmth and comfort sets in moments before people freeze to death.
“It’s pretty luring, especially if you’re intoxicated,” he said.
Asked about stigma towards homeless people who use drugs and alcohol, he said it’s easy for people to fall through the cracks.
“There but for the grace of God go I,” he said, adding that most addictions are rooted in trauma. “It is pretty easy for someone to have missteps that can lead to being in a place where you need a shelter and community services.”
The Sobering Centre increased its beds from nine to 12 in January because it was full every night. Still, the service turns people away for lack of space, said James. Generally, one third of the mats are set aside for women in a separate room. At least 11 people use the service every night, and homeless men are still turned away, he said.
The other shelter in Campbell River is Evergreen House, which is located near Dogwood Street on Evergreen Road.
The facility has 22 beds, with six additional mats available from November until the end of March, part of the shelter’s “extreme weather program,” said Ian Lamont, community ministries program supervisor for the Salvation Army, which runs the shelter.
“There’s some people that don’t ever come inside unless the weather drops to -5 or -10,” Lamont said.
If beds are full at Evergreen House, people can still come inside and warm up. Fire restrictions impose a maximum capacity limit, but that hasn’t been an issue, according to Lamont.
People are allowed to come inside while intoxicated, as long as they follow directions from staff. But they can’t use drugs or alcohol inside the shelter.
“Anybody that wants to drink or use, they’re doing that outside,” he said.
When people can’t get into the shelter, it’s usually due to drug and alcohol issues.
“It’s mainly the clients that are in addictions that are not accessing the shelter,” said Lamont.
Lamont added that the RCMP is mandated to transport people to shelters who are in an unsafe situation. Police also transport people from Evergreen House to the Sobering Centre if they’re too intoxicated, Lamont said.
He appealed for volunteers from the community to help out with the Salvation Army’s efforts, including at Evergreen House and the Lighthouse Centre soup kitchen, which is located in downtown Campbell River.
By the numbers
Staff at the Sobering and Assessment Centre say at least two homeless people die in Campbell River almost every winter. The BC Coroners Service couldn’t immediately confirm that number.
However, a 2017 BC Coroners Service report states that the coroner investigated the deaths of 11 homeless people in Campbell River between 2007 and 2015. Those people died for reasons that may include exposure, but cause of death isn’t listed by township in the report.
Deaths in Campbell River accounted for three per cent of all fatalities among homeless individuals in B.C. The same number died in Prince George during that period.
Province-wide, at least eight homeless people died of exposure from 2007 to 2015. Exposure to cold was the cause of about two per cent of deaths.
The top cause province-wide was poisoning due to drugs or alcohol, which accounted for about a third of fatalities.
The statistics include the “street homeless” – people living outdoors, in a parked vehicle or other structures “not intended for habitation” – and the “sheltered homeless,” which includes people living in temporary shelters, such as safe houses or transition houses.
Not included in those figures are people living temporarily in drug or alcohol treatment facilities, hospitals or motels. People whose housing status can’t be determined may also be excluded from the data.
The figures also exclude people with pre-existing medical conditions. Deaths that must be reported to the coroner include “all non-natural deaths, and all sudden and unexpected deaths where the person was not under the care of a physician.”