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Vancouver, B.C. agree to add shelter beds as homeless population grows

The agreement came shortly after three other BC Housing-funded temporary winter shelters, with 170 spaces in total, opened in November and were almost immediately reporting that they had to turn people away.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

A last-minute agreement to add more shelter spaces in Vancouver is expected to benefit the city's growing population of homeless young people the most.

There's been a dramatic increase in the number of young people accessing other social services in the Burrard and Davie area, where many of them congregate, says the director of Directions Youth Services Centre.

As a result, when the agency opens its first-ever 10-bed winter shelter in January thanks to extra money announced by BC Housing just before Christmas, those young people will likely flock to the new space, Calum Scott said.

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"My assumption is it's just going to be packed," Mr. Scott said. His agency, which primarily provides employment and other drop-in services, saw the number of visits it gets from young people increase from 28,000 in 2013 to almost 36,000 in 2014, and the numbers continue to rise.

Directions is one of three service agencies that will be providing an additional 60 shelter beds for the winter in Vancouver, after the province and city agreed to split the $250,000 cost.

The agreement came shortly after three other BC Housing-funded temporary winter shelters, with 170 spaces in total, opened in November and were almost immediately reporting that they had to turn people away.

Vancouver Councillor Kerry Jang, who was pleased the province agreed to the late addition of more beds, said he wasn't surprised by the demand.

"Homelessness is growing everywhere in the region."

He said Vancouver has seen growth in a new generation of young homeless people, whose numbers have been going up while the city has struggled to get older people who live in shelters or on the street into permanent housing.

"There is a generational shift," said Dr. Jang, a psychiatry professor at the University of British Columbia. "I'm not sure where they're coming from."

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He and colleagues at UBC are studying the region's homeless counts from the past several years to try to understand some of the demographic shifts.

Homelessness has become much more visible in suburban municipalities, with communities such as Maple Ridge and Abbotsford struggling to figure out what to do about camps that have sprung up.

Rich Coleman, Minister Responsible for Housing, provided funding, for the first time this year, for three winter shelters in Abbotsford, Maple Ridge and Surrey that will operate like the shelters that Mayor Gregor Robertson initiated in Vancouver in 2009.

Those emergency, or HEAT, shelters stay open throughout the winter, rather than just being open on cold or wet nights.

Mr. Scott said he thinks many more young people will show up once they know there are shelter beds open every night at his agency, which occupies the bottom two floors of a social housing building on Burrard Street across from St. Paul's Hospital.

"A lot haven't been accessing shelters until now because they don't even know when they're open. They just hunker down under the bridge," he said.

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Besides the 10 spaces at Directions, another 30 spaces will be provided at the New Fountain shelter in Gastown run by PHS Community Services Society, starting around the second week of January.

Union Gospel Mission will have an additional 20 spaces open by New Year's Day.

All of them will give people a place to sleep from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., as well as two meals and access to certain services during the day.

All of the shelter operators emphasized that they don't see shelter beds as a solution to the homeless problem, but they do believe giving people a place to come every night provides them with an opportunity to get permanent housing or other help.

PHS project manager Duncan Higgon said he expects the 30 beds will fill up quickly, since a 60-bed permanent shelter also run by the agency has been full every night since winter weather set in.

"I wasn't surprised more beds were required, given the numbers we were turning away," he said.

He said the new spaces will likely be especially attractive because they'll be as barrier-free as possible.

That means couples can stay together, people can bring their dogs and shopping carts, and residents who need to use drugs will be able to go outside without losing their spots.

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