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Vancouver homeless need your coats, socks and compassion during cold snaps

Time:2017-01-08 11:28Underwear site information Click:

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It’s near dinner time at the Yukon Housing Centre in Vancouver and kitchen staff are busy serving steaming-hot chicken sandwiches, potato wedges and Brussels sprouts.

Outside, the temperature hovers just below freezing. A man struggles to lock his bike while another, shivering, takes a drag off a cigarette. Inside, they’ll soon sit down to fill their bellies before tucking into one of 71 shelter beds or 37 transitional housing units, all operated by the Lookout Emergency Aid Society.

Some shelter guests stay a night or two but most need about a month, said manager Richard Marquez. Transitional-housing guests might stay for up to two years as they seek and prepare for permanent housing.

The cold weather takes a toll on their physical and mental well-being, Marquez said.

“We see it played out here in really significant ways during the cold and extreme weather season — particularly elderly people that have mobility impairments, people that have concurrent disorders — addictions and mental health challenges.”

For staff, cold weather means bolstering case management and more referrals. Yukon might turn away 20 or more people each evening during the winter months, but they are sent to other temporary housing and to extreme weather shelters, many run by other housing providers such as RainCity, PHS and Atira.

“Our philosophy and our principle is never to discharge anyone to the streets but rather find them placements and other shelters, including extreme weather (shelters) if we’re over capacity,” Marquez said.

Lately, guests are spending more times indoors and this can lead to tension and conflicts. Staff must keep an eye out for violence, which at rare times can “explode,” Marquez said.

Guests may be impacted by complex disorders, chronic poverty and addiction. Some are considered high-risk and staff need to be cognizant of their level of impairment. Unruly guests will take a “time out” if they arrive in an aggravated state, but staff are trained to monitor and deescalate such situations.

Close partnerships with B.C. Housing, Vancouver Coastal Health, city staff and police mean help is just a phone call away.

However, Marquez said the extra time spent indoors is in some ways a blessing.

“It’s also an opportunity to build community and that shouldn’t be lost … a gathering point to bring people together that have commonalities of struggle.”

Vancouver’s March 2016 homeless count tallied 1,847 homeless people in the city, of which 71 per cent were sheltered and 29 per cent were unsheltered. In 2011, the count was 1,581, of which 90 per cent were sheltered.

But Marquez worries this spring’s count will reveal that the situation has worsened. He eagerly awaits the federal government’s National Housing Strategy, expected to be released early this year, and hopes this will help put more Yukon guests into stable, permanent housing.

Marquez said he considers supporting the homeless a privilege, a calling which allows him to help people empower themselves.

Asked how Vancouver residents can help, too, he rattles off a list: “Underwear, socks, towels, T-shirts, coats, pants, shoes, boots,” as well as food and money.

But they can also help in non-material ways, by showing compassion year round, he said.

“I think what’s really, probably most important to remember is that we’re building community here,” he said. “The folks here are some of the most vulnerable, some of the most powerless people in Canadian society, and they have meaning and they have value. They’re just as important as anyone else in other parts of Vancouver.”

The provincial government added about 540 additional winter shelter spaces in 16 communities this winter, including more than 300 beds in Vancouver alone, according to an emailed statement from B.C. Housing.

The government spent $1.6 million this winter to support more than 1,000 emergency shelter spaces, which are activated following an extreme weather alert. The average capacity for these shelters is about 60 per cent.

“Emergency shelter operators assure us that no one has been or will be turned away if they need a warm place to sleep,” the email said. “At times that the emergency shelter capacity has come close to being full in a community, we have provided additional funding for more beds.”

In Vancouver, there are 956 permanent-shelter beds as well as an additional 195 temporary winter shelter beds and up to 234 beds available during extreme weather, according to the city. Spokesman Tobin Postma said four warming shelters will remain open during B.C.’s extreme-weather response.


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