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Cold-weather shelter joins ranks of homeless

The city's extreme weather shelter may be joining the ranks of the homeless

More than 16,000 bed stays were recorded this winter as Campbell River Family Services placed a portable extreme-weather shelter downtown for the city’s homeless for the second straight winter season.

But now the shelter may be joining the ranks of the homeless.

For each of the last two winters, from November through March, the converted 40-foot shipping container provided warm, secure beds for up to 16 people a night on a vacant lot at 1241 Dogwood Street, adjacent to Fire Hall No 1. But that lot has been purchased by a local chiropractic clinic in a property swap with the city.

The clinic’s previous location, at 1180 Fir Street, has been proposed for a sobering assessment centre to be run by CRFS, but that centre cannot function as a homeless shelter, CRFS director Paul Mason warns.

“The cold-weather shelter worked wonderfully,” said Mason, who is scheduled to address council at its Monday meeting. “No one perished on the street the last two winters while it was there. Now there’s nowhere for the homeless to go; they’re going to be back in doorways.”

Mason is expected to share with council statistics from the cold-weather shelter’s recently completed season, and to update councillors on the proposed sobering assessment centre. But he would also like to see the city address the larger issue of homelessness, and to do so well before the chill winds of autumn raise the question of what is to be done next winter.

“We need to have a plan,” said Mason. “We need somewhere 365 (days a year). The sobering assessment centre is going to alleviate a lot of problems, but it’s not a shelter.”

During the last winter season, which Mason admits was particularly mild, the cold-weather shelter counted 16,006 bed stays. The total number of users is uncertain, since many of those bed stays were by returning users, but of the 11,544 male users, 783 were First Nations. Of the 462 female users a startling 415 were First Nations.

The shelter was staffed by volunteers from Radiant Life Church, and the city donated the use of the lot. But the bulk of the funding comes from Campbell River Family Services, which made the commitment to keep the cold-weather shelter open nightly, regardless of the temperature.

BC Housing, though, provides funding only for nights when conditions meet its extreme-weather criteria, with temperatures below zero.

“We kept it open every night, from Nov. 1 through March 31, but we only qualified for a small portion of BC Housing funding,” said Mason. “We funded it ourselves, and it really took a chunk out of our funding.”

Mild weather or not, Mason is proud of the shelter’s smallest statistic — zero. That’s the number of people who have died of exposure or weather-related causes in Campbell River the past two winters. By comparison, five people died on the streets in the winter of 2011-12, before the shelter was assembled and placed downtown.

The Salvation Army operates an emergency shelter on Evergreen Road, but it is a “high-barrier” shelter which does not accept clients under the influence of alcohol or drugs. And it is a long hike from the downtown core where the bulk of the city’s homeless spend much of their time.

Mason said the community has at least 40 chronic, full-time homeless people. A number maintain campsites at Nunn Creek or the area behind SuperStore, but others sleep wherever they can find a moderately sheltered area in the city.

Beyond the street entrenched homeless, Mason said, there are many more who drift on the margins of society, including those who “couch surf” or go from temporary shelter to temporary shelter. Mason said what is really needed is a housing model to get these people off the street and reduce costs to emergency services, medical care and policing, which all fall to the public purse. Mason credited the generosity of Campbell River residents with keeping the extreme-weather shelter open for the past two years and for stepping up to aid the cause — including raising more than $28,000 during the Coldest Night of the Year walk in February. The city has agreed, tentatively, to the establishment of the Sobering Assessment Centre but that may prove too little, too late for some.

“We will probably not have that building until early next year,” said Mason. “So what are we going to do this winter?”