As the cold persists, shelters in Victoria are understaffed

“I didn’t think I would ever be deprived like this,” Alex says as people spend a snowy Monday holiday on Government Street.

“But someone bought me a new jacket, scarf, mittens, so I have my own personal shelter on me,” he jokes.

As people walk past us, some offering to buy food for Alex, he tells me he’s been homeless for nine months. He doesn’t know when he won’t be. “Before that, I worked for a living and lived in houses for most of my adult life – 15 years,” says Alex. “Now I’m on every possible BC Housing list waiting for the chance to be housed. “

In the absence of a government-provided option, Alex recently discovered a new possibility: A fundraiser raised enough money to put him in a shelter of his own.

With temperatures dropping below freezing, for many like her, emergency shelters are the only way out of the cold.

This year, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness (GVCEH) activated Weather Emergency Response (EWR) shelters. They have been in effect since Friday, December 24 and are only activated on the day of a weather event below 0 ° C – everything above and the EWR shelters do not open.

This year the Salvation Army is operating an EWR overnight shelter on Johnson Street and two daytime warming centers are operated by the City of Victoria, an improvement from last year.

Since December 27, each night the Johnson Street Shelter has filled its 30 spaces and, in response, the City of Victoria has opened its Warm-Up Center at James Bay United Church for overflow overnight use.

But Alex does not access these shelters, and he expresses an often overlooked issue. He has a lot of things with him and a dog, Leeloo, which makes it difficult to use a shelter.

The EWR night shelter does not accept pets or caddies. Plus, says Alex, shelters are a responsibility and an uncomfortable experience for him – he says he’s sure everyone can understand why – and the risk of his things being stolen is a risk he’d rather avoid.

Alex’s situation points to an issue that EWR shelters are not addressing at this time, but it’s not the only one.

In response to the lack of transportation during emergency weather events, GVCEH said a safe BC Transit bus was available to pick up people at 919 Pandora Ave and take them to EWR shelters on Johnson Street and James Bay United Church on December 27.

The City of Victoria has also recognized this obstacle and in its Emergency Weather Plan, the City grants Victoria Police under the Shelter Assistance Act the power to assist a homeless person. to take refuge in a refuge during extreme weather events. Once in the shelter, the person can choose to stay or not.

Alex tells Capital Daily that he has a good relationship with the Victoria Police Department and that they have understood that he would rather be on the streets than in shelters.

“I get along well with the cops, great,” said Alex. “And they were actually trying to help me find accommodation, too.”

Among the barriers Alex lists, another problem persists in accommodation: staff.

On Sunday, December 26, Our Place Society closed its drop-in center – which provides meals, lockers and harm reduction supplies – three hours earlier than usual. Our Place Society told Capital Daily the closure was due to understaffing.

Staff shortage

??While COVID-19 restrictions prevented EWR shelters from opening last winter, this year service providers told Capital Daily they did not have the staff to provide space in an emergency. .

Dave MacMain, Community Manager at Cool Aid, said BC Housing approached Cool Aid in the fall to manage an EWR. The organization had to decline.

“Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t run an EWR program,” says Macmain. “There just aren’t enough people to make it work. “

Macmain added that they often turned back up to 10 people each night to temporary emergency shelters during extreme weather conditions. This is a seasonal nighttime program providing non-accommodated people with a mat from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. Before the pandemic, Macmain says, the carpet program housed nearly double the 23 people it currently serves.

On December 22, in anticipation of this week’s extreme weather conditions, GVCEH posted job offers for a casual emergency weather protocol support worker.

“People fall through the cracks,” says Macmain, “There is always a need for more services. Because there are always people who do not fit in the shelters.

And that’s where Alex comes in.

Nina Grossman, communications coordinator for GVCEH, told Capital Daily that EWR shelters aren’t meant as a service – they’re strictly a response, and one that can only be activated on the day of a cold snap, not before – a limitation defined in their BC Housing contract. “This program is a response to cold weather and unfortunately funding is delegated for it,” Grossman said.

Now volunteer members of the community are working to accommodate people like Alex.??

Conestoga cabins

The Backpack Project, a local self-help initiative for the homeless, has often expresses dissatisfaction with EWR online service providers. Critics of the organization tick many of the boxes that Alex fits in and have pointed out obstacles, like transportation, before many responsible parties acknowledged them.

“Emergency weather responses are never adequate. The community has come together a few times to run a shelter at the James Bay United Church, ”said a spokesperson for The Backpack project. “The community grew stronger when the province let us down.

Another community initiative that hopes to fill the gap is the Community Alliance of Sheltering Alternatives (CASA), which has started raising funds for their own EWR shelters.

CASA’s team of volunteers facilitate the installation of short-term accommodation solutions in Greater Victoria through a structure called Conestoga Hut, named after the wagons carrying pioneers, which the shelters closely resemble. A prototype was shown on Salt Spring Island last summer.

The initiative is supported by volunteers such as Frontrunners Victoria and Rob Reid, owner of New Balance Victoria; Calen McNeil, co-owner of Zambri’s and Big Wheel Burger; and filmmaker Krista Loughton.

“The shelters are running at half their capacity so we’re in deep trouble,” Loughton says. “It happened last year as well, so we’re trying to fill those gaps for people who fall through the cracks. ”

CASA is reaching out to private citizens, businesses, churches and NGOs to see if they can provide alternative accommodation for homeless people. Their fundraising goal for a hut – to house Alex – was $ 4,000, although it was exceeded; they have currently raised over $ 6,000. Aryze Developments rallied to match donations as the fundraiser neared its goal.

Loughton says the huts can be established through contracts with the owner and that they will use volunteers to facilitate and connect guests to services. They’ve already found a location for Alex’s cabin.

“The owner and Alex can understand the parameters and conditions around him. They’ll sign a deal, ”Loughton says. “If the government gets involved, we could create villages and it could be more permanent. ”

According to CASA, the Conestoga huts have been successful in Eugene, Oregon, where there are now 200 huts installed.

The reason these huts are desirable for someone like Alex is the fact that they are private, raised, and can be locked, which fixes many of the issues that prevented Alex from entering the shelters.

“I think they’re a good answer,” Alex said. “I can lock all my stuff and I don’t have to worry about it being stolen. I can also avoid blocking [Pandora Avenue’s 900 block]. ”

Despite the success of the fundraiser, Alex will still be out in the cold this week.

“I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong. But I thought the goal was to get me home before this freezing cold, ”says Alex.

As of this post, the weather is expected to drop below zero until Saturday morning. Thursday should bring more snow.

But next week, forecasts call for overnight lows of 1 ° C and an 80% chance of snow, rain and showers from January 1, which the policy says would close EWR shelters.

As Alex says he’ll wait until 2022, another response from the community comes to light: a fresh bowl of wonton soup from a passer-by. The act of kindness lights up Alex’s nook on Government Street for a brief moment. At the risk of being excluded, he also offers himself a treat for Leeloo.