British Columbia·Video

Homeless couples say poor housing and shelter options mean tough choices

Some homeless couples and their advocates say there are few shelter spaces in B.C. specifically for them and it's a barrier to getting them indoors. They say the answer is more permanent, secure housing so couples can live together long term.

Advocate says homelessness is 'incredibly lonely' and supporting couples is worth it

Rose Desjarlais, left, and Christian Reyes, are an engaged couple from Surrey who are homeless. They say they want to be housed but a stay at a Vancouver shelter was a frightening experience. To stay together on their own terms, they are camping out at Crab Park in Vancouver. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Kerry Bamberger, an unhoused person living in Vancouver, says she and her partner of 10 years want to be sheltered.

But Bamberger, 46, says there aren't enough shelter spaces in Vancouver that cater to couples and allow them to live together in dignity.

For that reason, she and her partner are living in a tent in Crab Park at the edge of the Downtown Eastside.

"I would not take [shelter] unless my partner can be where I am," Bamberger said. "It's better for us to work on it together and have each other than to separate and then really have nothing."

Kerry Bamberger, a resident of a tent encampment at Crab Park, said she left her SRO when the conditions there became too violent. She wants to find permanent housing where she can be with her partner of 10 years but has had no luck. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Some homeless couples and advocates say there are few shelter spaces specifically for couples in B.C.

B.C. Housing says it doesn't track how many couples seek space in shelters or how many are turned away.

It said most shelters accept couples as space allows but the homeless people CBC spoke to said many of those shelters are unsafe or unsuitable for couples to live in as a family.

They say it's a barrier to getting unhoused people indoors. They want better options for couples, especially more permanent, secure housing so they can live together long term.

WATCH | Kerry Bamberger explains why she'd rather live in a tent with her partner than alone in a shelter:

A person who is homeless explains why she won't leave her partner for shelter

8 months ago
Duration 0:38
Kerry Bamberger says if she was offered housing and her partner couldn't join her, she wouldn't accept it. "Because we're temporarily homeless... We can't have a relationship?"

Camping preferred by some

Bamberger was living in an SRO with her partner but said it became too violent. They have been living in a tent for the past six months.

She said a few shelters accept couples but are usually full. The alternative, generally, is to stay at a co-ed shelter in a room with a number of other people.

"We wouldn't do well there," Bamberger said. "It's not even just about the [lack of] privacy. There's violence and theft."

Rose Desjarlais, left, and Christian Reyes rake leaves in Crab Park. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Another couple at Crab Park, 44-year-old Rose Desjarlais and 42-year-old Christian Reyes, echoed Bamberger's experiences.

They were living in Crab Park for two weeks in September until being told to move on by authorities, they said. They then spent four or five days at a shelter together in a small common room with other people.

"I wasn't able to get a good night's sleep trying to make sure that we are safe," Reyes said. 

Now they're back camping at Crab Park.

"At least here, we have our own space. We're safe," Desjarlais said.

A fence blocks a tent encampment from the rest of Vancouver's Crab Park. Bamberger estimated there are three or four couples living in the park as of Thursday, Sept. 16. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

COVID adds challenges

Fiona York, an advocate for homeless people, said these couples' issues are "very common."

On any given day in Vancouver, she said, there may be only eight shelter spaces specifically for couples. On Thursday, she could find none.

"There's many preconceptions about what it means to be homeless," York said. "There's not a lot of consultation, not a lot of perspective that's given from people who are actually homeless, what they're experiencing."

Shelters are sometimes separated by gender, she added, so one partner might be able to find a bed but the other can't. 

COVID has made things worse because many shelter operators and SROs are restricting visitors — including residents' partners.

"I heard of even a young woman who was sleeping outside of her partner's building, a very unsafe situation," York said. "She was no longer allowed to be in his space."

York argues the solution is more permanent housing, like modular housing, with self-contained units so couples can live as families.

Homelessness 'incredibly lonely'

B.C. Housing said shelters are run by partner organizations and policies on couples vary. 

The layout and space of a shelter are important. Most offer single beds and allow one person to a bed. If there are two vacant beds, those can be given to couples.

B.C. Housing says "pop-up bedrooms" like these are being used by some shelter operators to provide more privacy for shelter users, including couples who are homeless. (B.C. Housing)

Spokesperson Sara Goldvine said developing permanent, secure housing is what the organization is aiming for.

"That's where we can best meet the needs of people, including people who are in family groupings, people who are in couples or people who have other needs," Goldvine said.

Stephen D'Souza, executive director of the Homelessness Services Association of B.C., which supports shelters and supportive housing, agreed more permanent housing is the answer.

WATCH | Many shelters do accept couples but space and privacy can be limited:

Take a tour of a Vancouver shelter where homeless couples are welcome

8 months ago
Duration 2:54
Amy Widmer with the Portland Hotel Society gives a tour of the New Fountain Shelter in Vancouver. She shows the types of spaces available for couples who are homeless, including a space for private, intimate moments.

Supporting couples who are homeless, he added, is worthwhile. Homelessness is "incredibly lonely."

"Everyone is trying to create communities around them, find a place with someone who loves them and cares for them in the same way that all of us do," D'Souza said.

"And I think you see that even more so for those who are homeless that are looking for companionship, particularly since they face so much stigma and so much trauma from the community who don't want them around.

"To have someone in your life who sees you and loves you is so important."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Liam Britten

Digital journalist

Liam Britten is an award-winning journalist for CBC Vancouver. You can contact him at liam.britten@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter: @liam_britten.

With files from Belle Puri

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