London

Why are people living in tents next to a London homeless shelter?

A lack of available beds isn't always the reason there is a cluster of tents outside the Centre of Hope, a Salvation Army shelter on Wellington Street in London.

Centre of Hope Executive Director said many clients choose to stay outside, even when there's space inside

The executive director of the Salvation Army's Centre of Hope on Wellington Street said that while capacity issues are a challenge, many clients choose to stay in tents outside the shelter's entrance. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

It's become a regular scene at the entrance to the Salvation Army's Centre of Hope shelter on Wellington Street, just south of the CN railway tracks: a cluster of nylon camping tents, groups of people ambling around and trash strewn on the street. 

Located at a key gateway to London's downtown core, the tents are a constant reminder that about 200 people sleep rough in the city on a typical night. 

The tents are there almost every day, even though most mornings city bylaw enforcement officers order them to be taken down. 

Melissa, who didn't want to give her last name, is originally from Ingersoll but has spent the last six months on the streets of London. 

She has stayed inside the shelter but says she often prefers to sleep outside in a tent because it's where she can stay close to people she knows. Also, Melissa admits she sometimes struggles to follow the shelter's rules. 

"I've been in this shelter and I lasted about two or three days," she said. "I can't follow the rules. If you're late, they kick you out, if they don't like you, they kick you out. I'd rather just stay out here." 

Other tent-sleepers who spoke to CBC News said most mornings they are roused by bylaw enforcement officers who tell them the tents must come down. The tents violate city bylaws because they block the sidewalks and one of the shelter's fire exits. 

Also, the city gets complaints about garbage and discarded syringes and the tents make it difficult to keep the sidewalk clean. Often the tents begin to reappear the moment bylaw officers depart. 

Centre of Hope Executive Director Jon DeActis said demand often exceeds the shelter's 220 bed capacity. But he also said this isn't the only reason why tents — sometimes more than a few dozen — are set up outside. 

Some choose to stay outside rather then seek a shelter bed because then they'd have to register and follow strict rules about when they can come and go and what they can bring inside, he said. 

This man said he often sleeps in a tent outside the Salvation Army's Centre of Good Hope shelter on Wellington Street, but said most days bylaw enforcement officers tell him to remove the tents. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

"We've talked to them outside many times and offered them to come in and to register and get a place to stay and get warm and get a meal," he said. "We do have regular communication with them but still, they're out there." 

DeActis said some clients tell him they're worried about losing their possessions to theft if they stay inside the shelter. The rooms aren't private and clients can't choose who shares the room.

But he also said the arrival of sub-zero weather is a worry because shelter staff aren't able to check on those who stay outside in tents through the night. 

"If there's a weather warning, we make a spot available, we'll open up the chapel, we'll do whatever," he said. "My fear is that if they overdose out there, we're not going to be able to do much to help them."

DeActis said if the weather is bad and shelter space isn't available, people outside are invited to escape the cold in the shelter's lobby. 

Still, a man who would only identify himself as Gypsy said the lack of space in the shelter often keeps him outside in a tent. 

When CBC News spoke to him Monday, Gypsy was pulling down his tent on the orders of city bylaw officers. He says it's something he does daily. 

"There isn't enough emergency shelters and there isn't enough apartments in the city," he said. "Even a rental for a damn room runs $600 to $800. Most people on welfare or disability can't afford that."

Gypsy also has a message for those who drive by on their way to work.

"They're only six to eight weeks from being here themselves," he said. "They lose their jobs, they've only got so much reserve, you don't find work. Welfare, unemployment whatever, it don't pay for that long. They could find themselves here in a heartbeat."

About the Author

Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.