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Rhonda, a homeless woman in Trail, B.C., stands beside the Columbia River. She bought a hammock in case city council shuts their homeless shelter, so she won't be bothered by the bears that pass through town.Salmaan Farooqui/The Globe and Mail

The little facility in a downtown alleyway in Trail, B.C., was never intended to be a 24/7 homeless shelter.

The La Nina Shelter operated for many years as an overnight-only facility where up to eight people could have a safe place to sleep in the winter. Most people in Trail’s downtown didn’t notice it, and the small number of beds was sufficient in the city of 8,000 people.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the shelter’s operators knew they’d have to respond. They immediately added 10 beds and became a round-the-clock operation after receiving a temporary permit from the city and help from BC Housing, a Crown agency that develops and manages subsidized housing in the province.

Now, Trail’s council is voting on whether to renew the shelter’s permit before it expires at the end of the month. Nancy Gurr, executive director for the Trail Association for Community Living, which operates the shelter, says reverting to its old eight-bed format is not viable as winter approaches. The shelter said it would have to fully shut down if it was instructed to downsize because having eight people clamour for rooms at a specific time each evening would lead to an unsafe situation for staff.

Michael Smith pushes a cart with his belongings in downtown Trail, B.C. He said he hasn't let himself think about what will happen to his life if the homeless shelter in the community was to shut down.Salmaan Farooqui/The Globe and Mail

“The guests at the shelter are from the community and they’re not going anywhere,” said Ms. Gurr, who added that shelters in nearby cities are full, and statements taken from shelter users to present to council painted a desperate picture if it was to close.

“A lot of the impact statements say things like ‘Maybe I could get arrested and go to jail and I’ll be warm there,’ or ‘I’m going to have to steal food to survive.’”

The face of homelessness in B.C.’s small communities has changed rapidly since the onset of the pandemic. Shelter staff, BC Housing officials and politicians say plummeting vacancy rates and skyrocketing rents have made housing out of reach for the most vulnerable people in small communities, while the effects of the pandemic have exacerbated existing substance abuse and mental-health issues. The issue has put a strain on local police and health care resources too.

Ms. Gurr said eight beds worked in the past because it was often possible to source housing for shelter users within three months.

B.C. provincial data shows 23,000 people experienced homelessness in 2019

Today, she says the picture is drastically different. More than 40 people use the shelter’s various support systems, such as food and community outreach programs, while only 18 are able to sleep there each night. Some of them have been sleeping there for years.

Trail’s rental vacancy rate was last recorded at 1.6 per cent in 2018, which was a rapid decrease from 10.2 per cent in 2012. The average cost of a home has jumped by roughly 50-per-cent in the last two years, according to BC Assessments, and rent has increased alongside that.

Trail Mayor Lisa Pasin said city council is currently deadlocked, with three councillors leaning to vote against renewing the shelter’s permit, while she and two councillors are in favour. One other councillor is abstaining because she sees her duties on a housing committee as a conflict of interest.

“Shutting down a shelter is not a strategy that any other municipality is embarking upon,” Ms. Pasin said.

“It would bruise relationships with BC Housing and ministries that are helping – all you’re doing is cutting off your lifeline.”

BC Housing regional director of operations Nanette Drobot, who oversees the agency’s work for much of the province’s Interior, said the same situation is playing out in small communities across the region, where the number of people using shelters has, in some cases, risen by 50 to 100 per cent. In the nearby city of Nelson, the number of beds at a shelter went from 20 to 30, while the city of Castlegar opened its first shelter during the pandemic.

“We are just able to open as many beds as each site has potential for... and they’re still full and turning people away,” Ms. Drobot said.

She said many of these communities haven’t dealt with visible homelessness, drug use and mental-health issues playing out on the street before. Many people believe that the homeless are coming from somewhere else. But most of the time, such as in Trail, they’re from within the community.

Carol Dobie, a Trail councillor who has served for eight years and is running for re-election, said she is voting against renewing the temporary shelter’s permit to send a message to BC Housing that its level of support has been inadequate.

She said the agency has been coasting on the level of support it’s giving, when it should be moving toward a permanent shelter in a new location. She said she’s also worked with the owners and managers of some six businesses who say their proximity to the shelter has led them to spend around $100,000 in total for security and lighting because of the activity around the shelter.

“When I see businesses that have been established in this town for years and years, I can’t support not seeing some serious changes happening,” said Ms. Dobie, who said she is supportive of a permanent shelter and didn’t take her decision to vote against the current one lightly.

“I decided I have to take a really hard stance and give a significant message to BC Housing that I am one councillor that will no longer put up with this.”

The shelter’s staff agree that the current building isn’t ideal: It doesn’t have an outdoor space, which means activity from the shelter often spills out into the downtown alleyway where it’s located. However, Ms. Gurr disagreed that moving the shelter out of the downtown core was a solution, and said finding a new space has taken a long time because nothing suitable has come up, and Trail’s heated rental market isn’t helping.

Closing the shelter would be disastrous and sever the city’s relationship with the homeless population it’s trying to protect. Ms. Gurr also said it would lose more than 20 skilled staff, which would make restarting a new shelter extremely difficult.

Cash Adams relies on the Trail shelter, and said visible crime and drug use would rise if the shelter were to shut.Salmaan Farooqui/The Globe and Mail

Occupants at the shelter say the closing would unravel all of the progress they’ve made after months there. Four shelter users told The Globe and Mail that they would definitely end up sleeping on the streets.

Michael Smith has been using the shelter since February. His path to homelessness started after a workplace injury that left him unable to have a job. Then a separate brain injury and the death of his mother all led to him turning to substance abuse.

He said he hasn’t even let himself think of what would happen to his life if the shelter closed.

“I don’t know where I’d go, I don’t know what I’d do,” said Mr. Smith, who said he hoped people realized how quickly life can go downhill.

Cash Adams, an on-and-off shelter user, said he believed shutting it down would create a sense of desperation among the people who rely on its services, and that the issue of harassment, crime and visible drug use would likely worsen for the community.

“It would absolutely be a horrible thing,” said Mr. Adams, whose drug use started at age 14 when he was first prescribed opioids for an injury.

Councillors will vote on whether to renew the La Nina Shelter’s permit for another three years on Monday. If that motion were to fail, council could explore other options such as a one-year renewal, which would put more pressure on BC Housing to find a permanent location.