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Vancouver cold-weather shelters open with high demand expected

Sean Spear, a director with RainCity Housing, stands outside a temporary heat shelter in Vancouver that was erected by RainCity.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver's cold-weather homeless shelters are up and running, with early results suggesting the facilities will run at capacity.

A shelter near Broadway and Victoria Drive opened Tuesday night, taking in about 40 people in a neighbourhood that has not previously been home to one of the city's "winter response" shelters.

"It filled up the first night," Sean Spear, associate director of RainCity Housing, said on Wednesday. "It's in an area where we had wanted to run a shelter for a while, but we didn't get one [in the neighbourhood] last year."

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RainCity runs the four shelters, which all opened over the past week. The temporary cold-weather shelters – with an overall capacity of 160 beds split roughly equally among four sites – are part of the city's homelessness strategy and have operated for the past three years.

The province has agreed to provide $1.6-million for the facilities while the city is responsible for finding and renovating the sites. This year, two are downtown and two are on the east side of the city.

The shelters are designed to serve people who are living on the street and are supposed to function as a bridge that can connect people to other services, including permanent housing in new social-housing projects that are coming on stream.

"They are one part of the housing continuum, but they are a really important point of contact," Mr. Spear said.

Meals are cooked off-site and delivered to the facilities.

Since the temporary shelters began operating, there have been recurring tussles between the city and the province over funding.

There have also been occasional complaints from neighbours.

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This year, some residents in Yaletown objected to a cold-weather shelter opening up on Seymour Street in an area they say is already home to more than its fair share of social-service agencies.

"Our argument is that this was a particularly inappropriate site," Sharon Promislow, a neighbourhood resident, said Wednesday. Ms. Promislow said she and other residents worry that a homeless shelter could result in more drug use, violence and crime in the neighbourhood. One resident has already complained of being harassed by people who were clustered around the shelter entrance, she said.

She also objects to the way the city went about choosing the site, saying she and other neighbours learned of the facility only weeks before it was scheduled to open and were not given a chance to voice their concerns.

The city has spoken to area residents about their concerns but has no intention of choosing another site, said Councillor Kerry Jang, adding that it was chosen based on survey results that indicated a need in that neighbourhood.

"This particular location was the only one available [in that neighbourhood] that we could lease," he said. "As we said to them, 'Here's the choice – do you save lives or do you inconvenience a neighbourhood?' We are going to save lives. And if there's any inconvenience to you, we will make darn sure that your problems or concerns are met and that's what we have been doing."

When he announced the shelters in October, Mayor Gregor Robertson said the spaces were part of the city government's plan to end street homelessness by 2015.

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RainCity has built on the experience of running temporary shelters in previous years to foster better community relationships, Mr. Spear said.

Cold-weather shelters are open and staffed around the clock, minimizing the likelihood of lineups, he said. Some temporary shelters in previous years opened only for set hours, resulting in lineups as people jockeyed for a space.

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