Homeless ushered in to extreme weather beds

Winter conditions prompt opening of more spaces across Metro Vancouver

Extreme weather shelter beds opened for homeless people across Metro Vancouver last weekend in response to the season’s first blast of frigid winter conditions.

Support agencies say the temporary opening for up to four days of 340 beds at 15 sites will be repeated or expanded as necessary.

“We’ll reopen as needed through the winter,” said James Pratt, the extreme weather response coordinator for Metro Vancouver.

“Our objective is to make sure nobody is turned away for lack for space this winter.”

Local cities activate extreme weather response plans and shelter sites open extra spaces when weather is considered severe enough to pose a substantial threat to the health and safety of street homeless.

Up to 635 additional spaces can be opened – typically mats and blankets on a floor in a church, community centre or other shelter site.

Vancouver has the most extreme spaces, but there also 140 in Surrey, 98 in Abbotsford, 60 in Burnaby, 50 in New Westminster, 30 in Langley and 22 in Richmond.

Pratt said there was “reasonable uptake” in the initial extreme weather opening of the season.

“We’re grateful for all the people on the front lines who spread the word to people on the street or in the bushes so they can come in and have a warm place to sleep.”

The Tri Cities was the only area where extreme beds didn’t open, he said, because a 30-bed cold wet weather program open throughout the winter there still has plenty of space.

There are also 30 seasonal cold wet weather beds now open in Maple Ridge and 44 in Vancouver, for a total of just over 100 across the region.

That’s down this year because 160 seasonal beds were eliminated in Vancouver, as a result of the opening of more supportive housing for the homeless in that city.

Although some advocates have protested the decrease, the provincial government says it’s more cost-effective to fund permanent housing than funding winter beds.

The seasonal and extreme beds are separate from the more than 1,409 year-round permanent spaces for the homeless across Metro Vancouver.

There are more than 1,100 year-round spaces in Vancouver, 117 in Surrey, 53 in New Westminster, 49 on the North Shore, 30 each in Maple Ridge and the Tri Cities, as well as 10 in Richmond.

The province contributes more than $20 million a year to run them.

The government has also invested more than $150 million converting old skid row hotels to affordable housing and other supportive housing projects to provide hundreds of new units to house the homeless.

Pratt urged people interested in supporting the homeless to help local shelters through donations of cash and warm clothing.

For a list of shelters in each city, see the Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy website at www.gvss.ca.

More than 2,600 people were counted as homeless across Metro Vancouver earlier this year, more than half of them in shelters. The regional homeless count found the number of unsheltered street homeless was way down from three years ago – shift credited to the province’s housing strategy.