A city councillor and non-profit housing manager are speaking out about the importance of the city’s four winter shelters to quell fears raised by a downtown residents group worried about the negative effect tenants of one shelter will have on their neighbourhood.
Vision Vancouver Coun. Kerry Jang and Bill Briscall of RainCity Housing, the non-profit responsible for operating the shelters, were reacting to a media campaign launched by the Emery Barnes Park Community Association to stop a shelter expected to open within two weeks on Seymour Street.
“None of it’s reality, it’s all fear,” said Jang of the association’s claims of “importing problem behaviour” into the neighbourhood.
Jang said a shelter at 1210 Seymour St. was chosen to serve a homeless population that was evident during the City of Vancouver’s annual homeless count, which found 306 people across the city living on the street in March.
“We’re here to save lives — and that’s it,” said Jang, noting he didn’t want to see a repeat of the death of a homeless woman who died in 2008 after her makeshift tent and shopping cart caught fire downtown.
Briscall pointed out the City of Vancouver is now in its fifth year of opening temporary winter shelters, which have been supported by Police Chief Jim Chu and the Vancouver Police Department.
Although Briscall acknowledged street disorder problems with the opening of some of the first shelters on Howe and Granville streets in the winter of 2008, he said the shelter program has received little, if any, pushback from residents over the past few years.
“The real story here is that these shelters are a first contact for people in these neighbourhoods and they end up getting permanent housing,” Briscall said.
Sharon Promislow, president of the 200-member Emery Barnes Park Community Association, said she wasn’t opposed to housing people in shelters. But she described her neighbourhood as saturated with social services and housing for homeless people.
She pointed to Covenant House for street youth on Drake Street, the Gathering Place at 609 Helmcken, the Coast Mental Health Resource Centre at 1225 Seymour and a new social housing building at 1338 Seymour.
“[The shelter] should be placed in an area where it doesn’t already have all these social services,” said Promislow, who lives next door to the shelter.
She said she and her fellow tenants learned about the shelter via a friend who has a contact at city hall, despite the City of Vancouver saying it circulated notices about the shelter to residents within a two-block radius of the former auto centre.
The Seymour shelter, and the three others spread across the city, is defined by the City of Vancouver as “low-barrier,” which means tenants can bring carts and pets to the building. The definition given to Promislow from the city notes tenants “are not expected to abstain from using alcohol or other drugs, or from carrying on with street activities while living onsite, so long as they do not engage in these activities in common areas of the house and are respectful of other tenants and staff.”
This worries Promislow, who believes allowing such tenants at the shelter will “import problem behaviour”, including drug activity and street disorder.
“This is an element that can unsettle the apple cart,” she said, claiming no drug activity exists in her neighbourhood. “It’s a very clean area. I know everybody automatically thinks, ‘Oh well, you’re one block over from Granville.’ It’s a different world, it really is.”
The first of the four shelters opened over the weekend at 21 East Fifth at Ontario. The Seymour location and two others at 862 Richards St. and 2610 Victoria Drive will open within two weeks. Each shelter will offer 40 beds and stay open at least until May, when the $1.6 million from the provincial government expires.