Loss of emergency shelter facility confirmed

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BC Housing says it is committed to ensuring no one ends up on the streets once a supportive housing development is built on Salt Spring, but Rob Grant says its decision to also close the existing emergency shelter will be problematic for the community.

Grant is executive director of Salt Spring Island Community Services (SSICS), the organization that operates the In From the Cold emergency shelter at 268 Fulford-Ganges Rd. While BC Housing has hinted at some shelter capacity at the planned supportive housing building on Drake Road, they have made clear that the current shelter will close. When these plans are finalized, Grant said there will still be an unmet need in the community.

“Nothing around the new housing on Drake Road is going to change the need for shelter capacity. The need will still be very high,” he said. “All the data shows that, and our experience as well.”

There is a “years-long trend on Salt Spring Island in rising homeless counts far outpacing the services available,” SSICS program director Annika Lund stated in March. A 2021 point-in- time count conducted by Community Services on Salt Spring found 146 people experiencing homelessness, with 37 of those sheltered and 109 unsheltered.

To meet some of this need, BC Housing plans to erect a building of up to 28 units of supportive housing at the 161 Drake Rd. Capital Regional District (CRD) property.

The province is proceeding with urgency on the build, hoping to have the development ready by late summer and using its powers under the Interpretation Act to fast-track the project past the normally required development approval processes.

The urgency was prompted by a positive development on the housing front, as the Lady Minto Hospital Foundation purchased the Seabreeze Inn to renovate it into between 14 and 20 apartments to house healthcare workers. Yet one positive development became a crisis for the around 18 residents temporarily housed at the Seabreeze during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After months of waiting, BC Housing announced their plans for Drake Road, which is meant to house people from the Seabreeze and the shelter, which will be closed when the Drake Road housing is available.

“Not only will these new supportive homes be higher quality, they will also be co-located with additional services that can help people experiencing homelessness on Salt Spring Island connect to permanent housing solutions,” BC Housing communications specialist Laura McLeod stated. 

McLeod added that BC Housing recognizes the concerns around the future of the shelter and the need for additional temporary spaces for people experiencing homelessness.

“There will be shelter spaces at this site, but the exact number is still being determined,” she confirmed by email. Requests for an interview about the project were not granted.  

“As such, we are exploring the option of having a very limited number of double occupancy units at Drake Road be used as ‘bridge to housing’ beds,” she stated.

These are different from temporary shelter beds, and people wanting to access them would need to apply in advance. 

While he supports the construction of supportive housing, Grant said that there will be no additional housing capacity coming out of the Drake Road building.

The In From the Cold shelter had been built up in terms of capacity over the past few years. Before 2015, the shelter was only open during extreme weather as part of BC Housing’s extreme weather response program. Between 2016 and 2019 it operated seasonally between Nov. 1 and April 1. After this, the shelter began operating year-round, yet was only open overnight, and it was only in April last year that the shelter became a full-time operation. Rob confirmed that BC Housing funds the shelter’s entire $900,000 annual operating budget, with the largest costs being double staffing 24 hours a day and a food program supplying three meals a day.

There are now 30 spaces maximum at the shelter, Grant confirmed: 22 beds and eight mats on the floor. During the COVID-19 pandemic shelter capacity was brought down drastically, which prompted SSICS to rent rooms at the Seabreeze Inne with 18 rooms currently occupied. Some of those are funded by BC Housing, some by Community Services and some on a subsidy model with individuals paying what they can and having the rest subsidized. 

BC Housing has argued that there won’t be a reduction in housing spaces in the community as a result of the Drake Road plans. If the extra temporary spaces available at the Seabreeze during the pandemic are not counted, this may be technically true as the 30 spaces at the shelter will now transition to 28 spaces of supportive housing plus a few shelter spaces. Yet, as Grant points out, “It’s not a reduction in actual beds, but it’s an elimination of a certain kind of service.”

People access an emergency shelter for a variety of reasons, he explained, including midnight discharges from hospital or from police, stormy weather preventing people from accessing their boats, and so on.

“With no shelter I don’t know where these people are going to go,” he said of what might be a reality as early as this fall.

McLeod added that there are no plans to relocate people from the island in order to secure housing for them. In addition to Drake Road, where the most vulnerable and high-need people would find housing, BC Housing is looking at Croftonbrook’s Phase 2, 34-unit apartment building, currently under construction.

“In addition to this building and rent supplements, we are working with Island Health to provide suitable housing for seniors who require more robust medical supports,” she stated. 

McLeod noted the contingency funding available for extreme weather and winter shelters, which Community Services could apply for. Yet opening such spaces just for the coldest nights of the year would not be feasible, Grant said.

“An emergency weather response means extra beds. You typically add them onto a shelter.”

Having an appropriate site and qualified staff on call and ready to work only for the nights of the year when extreme weather response is activated would be nearly impossible, he explained, especially as the weather fluctuates during winters on Salt Spring.

“We have tried that in the past, and it was a challenge to operate and did not meet the need very well.”

Grant said he has urged BC Housing to talk to others in the community about the need, the angst that cropped up around the Seabreeze changing hands and the establishment of a warming space in community parks, both of which are issues connected to housing and homelessness.

“Without having an emergency shelter, it’s back into the parks, back into Ganges, back into the camps and all the places that have been problematic in the past,” he said. 

Community Services’ position, Grant stated, is that a year-round 24-hour emergency shelter is needed for the health and safety of people facing homelessness and for the community.

“Emergency shelters always have, and will be, a necessary component of an effective continuum of service in a community with a homeless population of the size that exists on Salt Spring,” he stated. 

Both Grant and McLeod confirmed that their organizations are continuing to work together on this issue.

In a fact sheet, BC Housing stated they will hold a community information session closer to the opening of the Drake Road building. To get in touch directly with BC Housing, email communityrelations@bchousing.org.

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