“Not too bad…clean too,” says Abbotsford police officer Paul Walker as he hops onto the top bunk-bed at the homeless shelter in Campbell River.
Walker was in the River City Wednesday along with Abbotsford city councillor Henry Braun and emergency room doctor David Melnychuk to learn more about a pilot project to provide safe shelter for those who have no homes.
“As you can see, it’s pretty minimal, but it works,” says Paul Mason of Campbell River Family Services as he leads the tour.
Located near the heart of downtown Campbell River, the Safe Shelter – a converted steel shipping container – is located beside the main fire hall and across the street from the Radiant Life Community Church which manages the shelter and provides meals for people in need.
“There was some initial resistance to putting it out in a public place, but that’s where we wanted it. We didn’t want people sneaking in and out,” says city Coun. Ron Kerr.
Every community struggles with its homeless population, but no municipality in Canada had to endure what Abbotsford went through last year.
In December, just before Christmas, Abbotsford was granted a B.C. Supreme Court injunction to remove a homeless camp in the city’s Jubilee Park. This came on the heels of the city dismantling a makeshift compound that had been set up in a parking lot.
And there was the unfortunate incident last June 4 when city workers dumped chicken manure in a small area where homeless people liked to sleep and hang out.
“We did what? At first I thought it was a bad joke,” recalls Coun. Braun.
The city issued an apology the next day, but the situation hardly improved, culminating in the December confrontations between the homeless and authorities.
Now, Abbotsford representatives are trying to find workable and affordable solutions, and Campbell River’s pilot project appears to be one remedy.
“It’s pretty well-thought out…and it’s better than people living in ditches or tents in the woods,” says Braun.
He did have one big concern: How was the downtown location of the Safe Shelter received by the public and the business community?
“Some people are trying to tell us this belongs way out in the boonies – I don’t believe that,” Brown adds.
Kerr and Mason say it was a seemingly contentious issue when the idea was first floated about putting the Safe Shelter downtown. However, consultations were held with the public, business community and authorities to address their concerns before the converted shipping container arrived, and the plan also had the support of council. After three short months, the pilot project is viewed as a success story. An average of 10-11 people sleep there every night and it’s also a low-barrier shelter.
Low-barrier means people who are impaired by alcohol or drugs can spend the night. And that’s different than the Salvation Army’s permanent shelter in Campbell River, Evergreen House, where you are turned away if you show up “under the influence.”
“As long as they’re no danger to themselves, others and staff, they can stay,” says Pastor Art van Holst of the Radiant Life Church which has the contract to manage and staff the Safe House. “Ambulance and police both think this is good, and the fire department is right next door – you know where they’re going to be…this is where they hang out.”
It costs $10,000 a month to staff the shelter with the money coming from Family Services which received a one-time grant from the Island health authority.
Campbell River will have to scramble to find money to fund next winter’s low-barrier Safe Shelter, but money shouldn’t be a problem in the much larger city of Abbotsford, figures Const. Walker.
“We’re a very giving community – this shouldn’t be a city responsibility, it should be the whole community,” says the officer who likes the idea of a safe place for those who need to be off the street. “We don’t necessarily want to take them to jail.”
A delegation from the Comox Valley is also expected to tour the Safe Shelter in the next week or so.
- The 40-foot shipping container was modified by Shadow Lines Transportation Group of Langley which donated its use for the pilot project.
- It consists of eight heated rooms equipped with bunk beds. There’s also a washroom and small office for the night-time monitors.
- It was first used last spring after the flooding in High River, Alberta.
- Donations of new blankets, pillows, coats, boots, gloves and clothes ensure the people who use the shelter are warm and dry.
No money for shelter for next winter
So far, it’s been a successful first season for the downtown Safe Shelter pilot project, but what about next winter?
“As of April 1, we’re back to square one,” admits Paul Mason of Campbell River Family Services.
The Safe Shelter is on loan from Shadow Lines Transportation Group of Langley which converted the shipping container. The rest of the project’s funding came through a one-time grant from Island Health (formerly VIHA).
Mason isn’t sure where the money will come from for next season, but he’s been advocating for years to build a permanent low-barrier shelter in the city, particularly for men.
Men and women can stay at the Safe Shelter, but not far away is the new Rose Harbour apartment. It’s also low-barrier, notes Mason, but it’s only intended for women in transition, and their children.
He sees the success of Rose Harbour; particularly women who enter with addiction issues, but within six months have cleaned up, got jobs and found their own places to live.
“The key is bringing services to them,” says Mason. “It’s hard to bring services out to a tent in the bush.”
When people who are homeless are provided with shelter, regular meals, decent clothes and are able to access services, everyone benefits, says Mason. As an example, Family Services monitored one homeless client, with addiction issues, who cost the health system approximately $200,000 in one year for hospital admissions alone.
“When we help more people help themselves, everyone wins,” he says.