By Tyler Olsen and Laura Rodgers
The Riverside Road homeless shelter is staying open until May 20, past the expected date of April 30, and housing has already been found for 13 people who have come through the shelter.
The temporary weather shelter, which is operated by the Lookout Emergency Aid Society, opened later than expected in late-December and quickly filled up and is operating at or near capacity, members of the city’s Homelessness Action Advisory Committee heard last Friday.
That late opening date has seen the closing date also bumped back.
Around two-thirds of those coming into the shelter camped the previous night, with one-in-five staying at the Salvation Army shelter the night before, according to Lookout executive director Shayne Williams.
But most of those in the shelter don’t seem to be coming from the city’s most visible homeless encampments, Abbotsford Police Chief Bob Rich said at last Friday’s meeting.
Rich said his bike patrol officers don’t recognize the bulk of the shelter’s occupants from their visits to prominent Abbotsford encampments. That would seem to underscore assertions by service organizations that have long said there are far more homeless in Abbotsford than those living in the camps which have been front-and-centre during the last several years.
The city and the shelter’s operator, Lookout Emergency Aid Society, have said they want to see the emergency shelter stay open longer — indefinitely, if they can make it happen.
Jake Rudolph, deputy city manager, met with homeless activists at a recent meeting of the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors (DWS) in Abbotsford. He said there’s “talk already” about keeping the shelter open past the May date, but that it would require additional funding. Operating funds from now until May have already been promised by BC Housing, but anything beyond that is uncertain.
Williams has said the organization would be interested in continuing to provide aid at the facility, whatever form it may take.
Many from the city’s homelessness committee have voiced support for the Riverside building being used for some kind of daytime aid, even if funding for beds ends in the spring.
The mood of the DWS members has been wary toward the shelter, though many were glad to see Rudolph, Williams, and other city and Lookout staff at their recent meeting.
“You can take the man away from the streets, but you can’t take the streets away from the man so easily,” said DWS member Harvey Clause, describing how the transition from sleeping rough to entering a shelter can be jarring. He said shelters’ standard bunkhouse-style sleeping arrangements can feel “like a jail” to those used to staying outdoors.
Riverside was designed to allow pets, but because bunk-bed frames were back-ordered, mattresses had to be placed beyond the sleeping areas and staff determined there wasn’t enough room for animals. Once the frames arrive, Williams said, furry friends will be welcome.
Another concern for potential residents was their desire to keep their belongings with them – a service many shelters don’t offer. Riverside has recently installed large container bins to hold residents’ possessions.
Some DWS members said they wanted couples to be able to bunk together at Riverside, which currently only offers single beds in two gender-segregated areas. Williams said they’ll look into that.
The facility is running on $450,000 in operating funds from BC Housing. Made of six construction trailers on a city-owned lot, it cost about $750,000 in city funds to construct. Current plans are to reopen it next winter after a spring shutdown.
“It’s not perfect. There’s no way a dormitory shelter could be perfect,” said Williams. “But we’re helping the 40 people who are there.”