British Columbia

Island communities struggle to provide shelter for homeless

Communities across Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands are trying to find ways to support homeless populations.

New funding for Salt Spring Island shelter not enough, say organizers, and it's not the only community

The overnight shelter on Salt Spring Island will soon be open 365 nights a year, instead of just during the winter. (Sarah Cordes)

The overnight shelter on Salt Spring Island got a boost from BC Housing this week, but organizers say it's only one step toward what it really needs. 

The shelter, which provides 30 beds, showers and two meals a day, is open each night starting Nov. 1. Usually, it stays open until March 31 and then closes until the following winter. But now, it will stay open year-round. 

Rob Wiltzen, operations manager for Salt Spring Island Community Services, says it's good news but it's only a start. 

"We have an extremely high homeless rate on Salt Spring Island on a per capita basis. We outshine the rest of the province by far." 

Wiltzen says a 2018 count found 131 homeless people on the island, which means the per capita rate was higher than both Victoria and Vancouver. 

What they need, he says, is a shelter that's open around-the-clock, provides three meals a day, offers a place to store personal belongings and is connected to support services. 

Rob Wiltzen of Salt Spring Island Community Services would like to be able to provide storage space for people using the island's homeless shelter. The storage is currently at First United Church in Vancouver. (First United Church)

BC Housing says the shelter is a temporary solution to solve the housing problem and that the long-term solution is on its way in the form of affordable housing. 

"Housing is exactly what Salt Spring needs," said Heidi Hartman, Vancouver Island's regional.director.

"We're excited about this temporary option until the housing comes online."

That project was announced earlier this year and is supposed to provide 24 rental units in the coming years. 

Cold weather shelter space hard to find 

Salt Spring isn't the only community looking for solutions to homelessness. Even on a temporary basis, shelter can prove elusive in island communities.

In Parksville, when a 52-unit supportive housing building opened this summer, it was supposed to include shelter space as well — but that changed when the city took control of the project.

Susanna Newton, the co-chair of the Oceanside Homelessness Task Force, says the community is now working to find somewhere else for eight people to sleep, shower and have dinner and breakfast from Nov. 1 to March 31.

In Parksville, the homeless task force is trying to find space to set up beds starting Nov. 1. (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

"At this point, we're still looking at our options," she said. "Local churches have come together and are giving it consideration, whether that's something that they can help us out with, and we're all hopeful that that will come through." 

She says it's frustrating to have to be looking for a new space. 

'We're just looking for the very, very basic' 

In the Comox Valley, Andrea Cupelli is scrambling to put together a warming centre as rainy season descends. 

"We just don't want anyone to be out on the streets, having to experience this cold, wet, weather during the day."

Cupelli, co-ordinator of the Comox Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, says they'll take any building they can find — though she's hoping he city can provide a building rent free to cut down costs. 

"We'll take a building as is, as long as it has washroom facilities, and it's warm and dry and can safely have capacity for about 30 to 50 people a day."

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