The shelter on Riverside Road.

The shelter on Riverside Road.

Homeless shelter opens, four men stay on first night

Temporary winter facility to operate until May 1

Just over three weeks ago, it was an empty lot. Now, the temporary homeless shelter on Riverside Road is up and running, with 40 beds for people to sleep, and meal service during the day.

“There were some challenging times in getting this facility to where it is now,” said Shayne Williams, executive director of Lookout Emergency Aid Society.

Last night, four men stayed overnight at the shelter. At 9:30 this morning, two of them were still sleeping — unlike at the Salvation Army, clients at Riverside can sleep as late as they like.

“It’s wonderful,” said Kim Willis, a shelter resource worker. “They seem to be happy to be coming.”

Lookout, a non-profit that also operates five shelters throughout the Lower Mainland, is running the facility with a $450,000 grant from BC Housing. The building costs of $750,000 were provided by the City of Abbotsford through gas taxes earmarked for community initiatives.

The shelter itself was built, or rather assembled, at top speed. It’s made out of six construction trailers attached side by side, with areas for sleeping, eating, socializing, and connecting with community support.

Those who stay at the shelter won’t have to trek through the cold in order to sign up for housing assistance, get a medical checkup, or connect with many other agencies providing aid to homeless people. Instead, representatives from Fraser Health, Abbotsford Community Services and other groups will host office hours right at the shelter, a “community hub” strategy Williams said is precedent-setting.

Bunk bed frames won’t be delivered until next month, so for now the mattresses are on the floor. The facility’s kitchen isn’t quite ready either, so the Salvation Army is cooking three meals a day for shelter residents and driving them over.

The shelter will operate until the end of April, and then is expected to re-open for the winter of 2016-17. Because it isn’t a permanent facility, the city wasn’t required to go through the time-consuming and costly process of community consultation. Temporary shelters are allowed in all types of zoning, and the Riverside lot is city-owned. City staff say they looked into using an unoccupied existing building for the facility, but none worked out.

By April, Lookout and the city hope many of those staying at the building will be able to find their way to more stable housing. It’s likely many will, as Williams said Lookout’s other shelters usually help about half their clients get off the streets. While there won’t be any more overnight stays allowed after May 1, the city’s housing team hopes to continue to offer related services at the site.

By 2017, a permanent 30-bed supportive-housing building for men who are homeless or at risk of homelessness will open on Gladys Avenue, and this will provide another option for clients.

As a “low-barrier” shelter, people won’t have to be clean and sober to stay at Riverside, though they won’t be able to drink or use drugs inside as it is with all provincially funded beds, Williams notes. Lookout staff hope the facility will soon be able to administer medication on-site, through a partnership with Fraser Health, although this service isn’t yet offered.