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Emergency homeless shelters a step towards stability

Rory Crawford unpacks his bags at homeless shelter in Vancouver December 16, 2010. The shelter provides space each night for up to 40 people and will operate until the end of April 2011.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The large room where everyone sleeps used to be a Korean grocery store.

Now, 40 thick mattresses are laid out in orderly rows on the linoleum at the homeless shelter operated by RainCity Housing, each rectangular slab of foam a silent testimony to the personality of its owner.

Some are minimalist, a few pieces of clothing stacked with military precision. Others are dense nests of bags, knick-knacks, books and more. A few have sheets hung around them, creating a tent-like setting.

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Mid-afternoon, four people are sleeping, blankets pulled over their heads.

But another dozen are just hanging around - playing cards, taking showers, joking with the staff. Rory Crawford is carefully sorting through his many plastic bags of stuff, stopping every few minutes to admire the beautiful, warm new pair of yellow socks that a staff member made for him out of a sweater.

"I can't believe the elation about these socks," said Mr. Crawford, a 53-year-old former security guard who has been living on the streets for about four years.

In spite of his troubles of the past few years, he speaks with the precision of an English teacher as he explains what the gift means to someone like him, who frequently can't find shoes or socks for his enormous feet. "As your feet get warm, the rest of your health builds up."

That's exactly the kind of small but significant change that people who work with the homeless are observing in the set of shelters that have operated this year outside the Downtown Eastside.

Four shelters housing 160 people in total doesn't seem like a big deal overall.

But the spaces are profoundly different from the region's 900-odd other shelter beds.

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People are allowed in 24 hours a day. They can store their belongings, either on their beds or in a safe-storage area. They're allowed to bring in their pets. They can leave in the middle of the night and come back. They have two hot meals a day.

And the people who work in the shelters get to know the residents enough to realize that a pair of socks makes all the difference.

In other words, the shelter is more like a home.

That has encouraged a whole new set of people who have typically avoided shelters to come inside: those who don't like the Downtown Eastside (where three other 24-hour shelters were set up under the same initiative as these four); those who can't live with the rules of the permanent shelters; and those who don't see the temporary winter shelters -open for a only few days at a time when the weather is bad - as a benefit.

"One guy we talked to didn't want to come to those emergency shelters because, he said, 'It's harder for me to go in and out, to have some place that's warm with a shower for a while and then be back out the door and in survival mode," says Karen Cooper, a researcher directing a team that has been studying the effects of the 24-hour shelters and their food programs.

Others like him don't want to come in for just a couple of nights because they would lose a special spot they've set up in a forest or under a viaduct.

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"We've also seen many who are schizophrenic, and if they can't come and go in the middle of the night, they won't go in."

The City of Vancouver's long-time homelessness expert Judy Graves said the shelters are attracting people who haven't been inside for years.

"It is radically different in Stanley Park these days," said Ms. Graves, who has done countless night-time trips through the city in the past 20 years to see where people are living. "There was an estimate that there used to be 50 to 80 people living there. I would be really surprised if this winter we have as many as eight people."

Because of all the new 24-hour shelters that house about 500 a night, Vancouver has been able to cut the number of people sleeping on the streets in half - to 428 in the March, 2010, homeless count from 811 in 2008. That is even though the total numbers of homeless people went up.

Ms. Cooper said the meals at the shelters have also demonstrated significant benefits.

People who are overweight are losing weight, because they are getting regular and nutritious meals, while those who are underweight are gaining.

Finally, the shelters have also proven to be the step needed to get people into permanent housing. Almost none of the 40 people who stayed at the Kitsilano shelter last winter came back this December.

"We were able to put in outreach workers and focus on long-term solutions," said David MacIntyre, executive director of the MPA Society, which represents mental patients. "By the time we were done, every single person was offered housing last year."

"This kind of shelter isn't just a last chance to keep them from dying on the street," said Ms. Cooper. "It's a first chance to get stable. If there were more shelters like this, there would be more people ready to move on to the next level."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Sheltering the homeless

What it is

Homeless shelters open 24 hours a day during the winter in neighbourhoods outside the Downtown Eastside

Why it works

The four shelters - one under the Granville Bridge, one near Stanley Park, one in Kitsilano and one in Mount Pleasant - serve communities with entrenched groups of people living on the street or in the parks. Those groups have typically refused to go to Downtown Eastside shelters or to places with a lot of rules.

These alternative shelters, an initiative of Vancouver city council run with money from the province, operated for the first time from January to April of 2010 and just opened again for 2010-2011. Because they're open 24 hours, people can leave their belongings safely. Women who work the streets at night can sleep there during the day. Outreach workers can spend more time with people. A high proportion of those who stayed in the shelters last winter moved to permanent housing.

Things that work update: Urban farming continues to expand

Urban farming - not hobby farming or community gardening but real farming as a business - has continued to gain in popularity throughout 2010.

A University of B.C student has identified 19 urban farmers in the city, including Ward Teulon, aka CityFarmBoy, whose work growing crops on several lots in the city was highlighted last year.

Vancouver's urban farmers grow about $250,000 worth of produce a year, said Chris Thoreau of the UBC Faculty of Land and Food Systems.

"We're looking at how to grow that market to a million dollars," said Mr. Thoreau, who farms sunflower sprouts on a lot in Strathcona. Urban farming is not intended to compete with commercial grocery stores, he said, but it is an economic generator and it does provide people with a tangible link to farming even in the middle of the city.

"Over the past year, urban farming has moved from a passionate hobby to a serious business," said Peter Ladner, a former Vancouver city councillor whose book Urban Food Revolution will be coming out next fall. "Demand for quality, fresh local food is exploding. What's still missing is the processing, distribution and transportation infrastructure to really scale up regional food production for local markets."

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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