This week the City conducted its annual homelessness count. As usual, the count was conducted shortly before the closure of several emergency shelters. This April five shelters are set to close, resulting in a net loss of approximately 200 shelter beds. No replacement shelters have been planned. The homelessness count is a public relations stunt timed weeks before the yearly shelter closures.
Since the start of the Homelessness Emergency Action Team (HEAT) program in 2008/9, the annual closure of the shelters in April has caused an exodus of people from shelters onto the street. In 2010, 2011, and 2012, residents of the closing HEAT shelters were ruthlessly evicted. The shelter closures were largely ignored by the corporate press and statisticians, while limited funding extensions have been repeatedly mis-reported as creating “new” shelter spaces.
Each year it is the same story. Only after the first winter cold-snap do the City and Province scramble to re-open the vacant shelter spaces. In the spring of 2010, the BC Liberals promised to regularize funding for the shelters. But yet the funding never comes and the situation only worsens. Like the timing of the homeless count, the opening and closing of shelters is guided by political considerations and photo opportunities, not the more simple goal of ending homelessness.
Struggles to keep shelters open
Despite the loss of five shelters in the coming weeks, the Provincial government has re-announced extended funding for the New Fountain and the Central shelters, as well as First United shelter in the Downtown Eastside at reduced capacity. The reduced funding for First United resulted in the loss of at least 150 shelter beds in 2012, a fact omitted from the Provincial press release.
Both the New Fountain and Central shelters have been part of ongoing battles with the BC Liberals over basic shelter funding. In 2010, Rich Coleman announced the closure of the Central Shelter and in 2011 he announced the closure of New Fountain. At the Central Shelter, residents fought back against the closures, led by the construction workers who built the Olympic Village from 2007-2010. Residents mobilized for a petition, declared plans for a squat, and eventually won the right to stay.
The following year the same skirmish unfolded at the New Fountain shelter. The Portland Hotel Society led a successful campaign to keep the shelter open. At the same time, shelter residents and community organizers attempted to hold shelters open on Cardero Street in the West End, Howe Street Downtown, and Fraser Street in Mount Pleasant. Each direct action generated significant news coverage, finally resulting in multiple arrests at the Broadway and Fraser shelter, a city-owned property scheduled to sit empty for the summer.
Gregor has stated that he is working in a “partnership with the Province” to “ensure that no one has to sleep outside at night.” In light of shelter arrests and the more recent proposed $10,000 fine for homelessness, and with 95% of relevant tickets handed out in the Downtown Eastide, Gregor’s pitch can only be interpreted as a jail sentence for homelessness.
 The five shelter to be closed are: Anchor of Hope on Cordova Street, 1210 Seymour Street, 21 East 5th Avenue, 826 Richards Street and 2610 Victoria Drive.