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British Columbia B.C. city wants to close homeless shelter over inadequate services

The Vancouver-area community of Maple Ridge wants the Salvation Army shelter closed and replaced with another provider over what it sees as a failure to connect people to housing and addiction treatment. But a veteran advocate says the decision could actually have the opposite effect, even doubling the city's homeless problem.

The City of Maple Ridge announced plans this week to ask B.C. Housing to end its contract with the Salvation Army, which has run a shelter in the city, east of Vancouver, for the past 12 years.

The breaking point appears to be an encampment of about 60 homeless nearby, which the city argues is evidence the Salvation Army is not solving Maple Ridge's homeless problem.

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Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read said the city believes a different provider would have more success. She said the city will open a temporary shelter of its own for the people in the encampment while the city and B.C. Housing search for the Salvation Army's replacement. But Judy Graves – a long-time homeless advocate who worked for the City of Vancouver – said cutting ties with the Salvation Army is a mistake.

"Winter is going to come," said Ms. Graves, who has worked on Vancouver's streets with homeless and mentally ill people for two decades and received Vancouver's Freedom of the City award.

"Closing that [shelter] is just going to double your homelessness problem."

Maple Ridge is the latest community in the region, particularly in the suburbs away from the concentration of services in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, that has been forced to confront street homelessness after people living on the street amassed together in a single encampment. Abbotsford found itself under intense criticism and the target of a lawsuit after attempting to remove a similar encampment with tactics that included spreading chicken manure on the site.

While Ms. Graves said she agrees Maple Ridge could benefit from a second shelter that deals exclusively with immediate needs and mental illness situations, she said that closing the Salvation Army will only put different people out on the street.

"There's still going to be people sleeping out," she said.

"There is no shelter that meets the full spectrum of need – you need both."

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The Salvation Army operates one in five shelters in Canada, with more than 20 in British Columbia. Its shelter in Maple Ridge has a total of 40 beds and they are occupied every night.

Ms. Graves noted the Salvation Army's shelters are among the best she's seen in the province. Their shelters, she said, actively deal with mental health and addiction issues, and they provide resources for people to transition into recovery and get off the streets with help of their in-house case managers and resident advocates.

"For someone whose primary issue is simply having become homeless – and that can happen to anybody with the speed of light – or for someone who is ready to come off the streets and move forward in recovery, Salvation Army shelters are excellent," she said.

"It would be not a good thing to be closing the Salvation Army," Ms. Graves said. "All communities need a Salvation Army presence so that they can be working on moving people forward."

Maple Ridge's mayor disagrees. Ms. Reid said the city does not believe the Salvation Army has been successful in connecting homeless people to treatment or housing, and she suggested a different provider, such as Vancouver-based RainCity Housing, would be a better fit.

"Some of these people have been in for two weeks or a month, out, back in for two weeks or a month – over and over and over for years," she said. "When it comes to the very street-entrenched homeless population, [the Salvation Army doesn't] seem to be able to do their best work … and that's the population in our city that's on the rise."

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Meanwhile, Patricia Cuff, the divisional secretary of public relations and development for the Salvation Army, said Maple Ridge's announcement came as a surprise.

"They had express some concerns regarding length of stay in our facility and each one of those concerns were addressed," she said. "We implemented new processes to better meet the needs in the community."

In 2014, the Salvation Army's Maple Ridge shelter served 373 people, and 205 of them went on to long-term housing or addictions treatment, Ms. Cuff added.

"That's 55 per cent of those individuals who are in our shelter program," she said. "When an individual says nothing is happening there, that's not the case."

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