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As Shelters Overflow, Vancouver Sweeps Out Homeless Campers

City swept tents from Oppenheimer Park as storms closed in and emergency shelters reported they were full.

Stefania Seccia 14 Oct 2016Megaphone Magazine / The Tyee

Stefania Seccia is the managing editor of Megaphone Magazine. Megaphone readers separately supported this particular series on homelessness solutions through a spring 2016 crowdfunding drive. Other publications wishing to publish this article or other Housing Fix articles, please contact editor Chris Wood.

[Editor’s note: A previous version of this story inaccurately summarized a quote from the City of Vancouver’s director of social development, Jim de Hoop. It has been corrected in this version. The Tyee regrets the error.]

Jean Swanson couldn’t help but notice the irony.

A member of the Carnegie Community Action Project, Swanson was participating in a press conference held at the Union Gospel Mission on Wednesday. It marked Homeless Action Week with a report on — among other indicators — the 25 per cent jump this year in the number of people the mission has had to turn away from its shelter beds.

Then she was called away — to witness City of Vancouver officials ‘sweeping’ as many as 20 tents and makeshift structures off the grounds of Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside.

“It was really, really sad,” she said.

Her voice cracking as she described the scene later by phone, Swanson said one older man, who was fighting pneumonia and reluctant to stay in an emergency shelter packed close to other people, resisted paying a visit to a nearby Single-Room Occupancy hotel — part of the Action Week events — because he didn’t want to risk losing his belongings if he left them at the park.

It was a reasonable concern: another man who had left stuff in his tent watched as a city worker threw out his jacket.

“So awful, it was so awful,” said Swanson. As she noted: the campers had been there only because they were out of other housing options.

The compounding impacts of the housing affordability crisis, overflowing emergency shelters, and now potentially harsh winter weather, are stacking up as a perfect storm for unsheltered homeless people this coming winter.

The season ahead may be cold and snowy, as the Farmers Almanac has predicted, or warmer and wet as Environment Canada forecasts, but advocates and service providers alike worry that there will not be enough shelter beds to meet the overwhelming need.

‘Shelter has been full’

In the first nine months of last year, the Union Gospel Mission turned 1,251 people away from the emergency shelter beds it provides year-round. This year, that number shot up to 1,545, according to UGM spokesperson Jeremy Hunka.

“Since August 29,” he said, “our shelter has been full. And that’s hugely concerning.” On Oct. 11, the Mission turned away 26 people. The next night it was 36.

“These are massive numbers,” Hunka said. “Thirty-six in one night is beyond explanation. That hits you in the heart.”

Driving home the point, within hours of the release of the Mission’s report environment officials issued an emergency weather alert, prompting the shelter to add 20 additional sleeping mats.

“We then filled those overflow beds, and still turned away seven other people,” Hunka said, “despite the fact that other emergency spaces for the alert were open nearby.”

“If snow hits in this environment,” Hunka added, “we’re talking a whole new ballgame.”

It’s becoming a new normal for shelter workers.

The report the Mission co-wrote with researchers from the University of Victoria was pointedly titled No Vacancy: Affordability and Homelessness in Vancouver. It found 10,728 singles and/or families were waiting for assisted affordable housing in B.C., while homeless shelters are running at 97 per cent capacity.

Meanwhile, Hunka said, Vancouver’s near-zero-vacancy housing scene is making it harder for outreach workers to find permanent housing for people in shelters. That means those people are staying longer in their shelter beds — and fewer new people are able to get in.

“Affordability [of market shelter] is playing a greater and greater role in that,” he added.

City has ongoing park injunction

And while there has been chatter this month that the city intends to make 190 provincially funded shelter beds available in Vancouver from December to April, that number has yet to be confirmed by officials.

The city’s director of social development, meanwhile, was overseeing the Oppenheimer Park sweep on Wednesday.

Jim De Hoop said there was “no consideration of political timing” in making the sweep during Homeless Action Week. De Hoop said the timing of the sweep was good “given the bad weather we’re seeing today and through this weekend.”

De Hoop noted that Vancouver has had an ongoing injunction against camping in Oppenheimer Park since 2014, when it swept out an earlier tent city due to fire and safety risks. According to De Hoop, the city was again concerned about those issues, given some campers had erected “actual structures with wood reinforcements.”

While some beds for the evicted campers were made available at the Salvation Army, De Hoop was unable to confirm that all found shelter.

He agreed with advocates however that Vancouver’s homeless are heading into a rough time of year. “I think each winter has been challenging for homeless people, without question,” he said.

But in fact the region’s housing crisis has meant shelters run full in every season.

The two emergency shelters that RainCity Housing operates in Coquitlam and Vancouver, for example, are “full most of the time,” says its spokesperson, Bill Briscall. “Regardless of weather, we’re turning people away.”

And just as the Gospel Mission report documents, he adds, the numbers are rising. “We’re now seeing more people becoming homeless for the first time in their lives. It’s rent going up, losing a job, relationship going sour, all those factors.”

But with all these issues “making it worse and worse and worse” for people seeking shelter in Vancouver, Briscall is already apprehensive about what the annual Metro Vancouver homeless count next March will show.

“If you don’t have a decent safety net, affordability can become a real issue,” Briscall said. “That need is going to be there independent of any type of extreme weather.”  [Tyee]

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