As the weather gets colder, the Salt Spring Island Community Services emergency shelter is getting ready for the winter season.
Though the opening is still more than one month away, staff at SSICS and its Salt Spring Island Housing First program have been looking at ways to make the shelter a more permanent option for those in need. They are in talks with BC Housing for funding to help expand their shelter capacity and hope to make changes before the shelter opens on Nov. 1.
“It’ll take a little bit of work to get that capacity up as the traditional shelter season arrives,” said SSICS executive director Rob Grant. “It is looking like it is going to be another tough winter for the number of people who are requiring some kind of emergency shelter. We really hope things can happen fairly quickly.”
SSICS’ Housing First group was formed to help tackle the problem of homelessness on Salt Spring. They operate as an emergency housing advocate for people experiencing homelessness by running the Salt Spring Island emergency shelter at the Community Services site. They have also conducted homeless counts on the island.
Though Salt Spring has a small population, the number of homeless residents is one of the highest in the country per capita, according to Grant. Even the absolute number of homeless people living on the island is high.
“When you look at the stats of the absolute number of homeless people, we’re right there with communities of 50,000 people,” Grant said. “We don’t get to the numbers that Vancouver or Victoria do, but we’re getting to the numbers that Penticton and Campbell River and Nelson do.”
Using BC Housing’s framework for emergency housing, the shelter would be able to be open 24 hours per day, seven days per week. The transition would include looking at staffing, boosting capacity and infrastructure at the site, as well as having better laundry and meal facilities. Grant has been consulting with other communities in the province and followed a similar approach to funding. Preparing to open full-time will take some time, but Grant is hoping to move forward as soon as funding is confirmed from the provincial organization.
BC Housing also operates a program called the Rapid Response to Homelessness, which would be the next step for SSICS after implementing the Emergency Housing Program. The rapid response involves having transitional housing for those experiencing homelessness in order to get them into more permanent situations. Most often, this is in the form of modular homes. However, some communities, such as Victoria, have had issues with temporary housing solutions becoming permanent.
“If you’re putting modular homes in on a temporary basis, the landowners better be ready for the long run. It may not be a very temporary thing,” Grant said. “As we set up housing, it needs to be permanent. If there’s a spot or someone has land that wants to make it available, then they’re in. A temporary trailer on there is going to turn out to be permanent.”
“If we find land it’ll have to be zoned well. It’ll need services, road access, fire access, sewer and all of those different kinds of things,” he added. “Believe me, it’ll either be permanent or it’ll be landowners in court trying to evict temporary residents.”
For the larger problem of housing on the island, Grant believes that a more cohesive approach from the many groups working on the issue will give the community a better chance at seeing change.
“We have to reach out to funders like [the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation] and BC Housing and the CRD, but we don’t have a coherent message. All we do is whine that we have lots of housing problems here, but the solutions that we pose are a little bit patchwork. It would be great to have a cohesive message.”