It’s the last week of April and once again people are being turned out onto the street as seasonal HEAT shelters shut their doors. This annual cycle has become tragically familiar for Vancouver’s homeless residents, but this year’s closures sting just a little worse. Last week, the City rushed through a by-law amendment that puts homeless people who set up tents on City property at risk for a $1000 fine and denies them their Charter right to protect themselves from the elements.
There has been a lot of talk from both the City and the Province about new help for the homeless. One of the five shelters slated for closure, the 40-bed Stanley/New Fountain shelter, is getting a two-month reprieve. The Union Gospel Mission has opened an expanded facility and approximately 300 new units of social housing are set to come online over the next few months. We don’t want to diminish the value of these services, but they are not the answer to the question facing shelter residents today. The new units aren’t ready yet and even when they do open, they not necessarily going to serve the people who are loosing their shelter beds. For example, 108 units are reserved for women with children, something that is very much needed but not applicable to most shelter residents. With long BC housing waitlists, barriers to some facilities and 1000s of people living in substandard SROs, there is no guarantee that these new units will do anything to keep shelter residents off the streets.
And the government’s decision to cancel the funding for the HEAT shelters simply does not take into account the reality that closing these shelters is like closing down a community. Some of the people staying in the shelters have set down their roots for the first time in years and built relationships with other residents and shelter staff that are often critical in helping them stabilize their lives. To take that away so arbitrarily does a disservice to every Vancouverite.
Over the next week we will be busy taking sworn statements from shelter residents who have nowhere to go. Our position is really straightforward: Pivot is joining shelter residents and homeless advocates in calling on the Province to re-instate funding until everyone staying in the shelter can be placed into a permanent home. We look forward to the day when temporary shelters are obsolete and no one is forced to spend the night on a sidewalk, but we are not there yet.