Shelter hopes to move to The Upper Deck on Wharf St. by end of December; RainCity looking for more staff
By Margot Grant
The homeless shelter at St. Hilda’s in Sechelt is at capacity.
It has only one sleeping area, with mats tightly fitted together, and the population is changing, says shelter manager Nick Gaskin. Sixty per cent of the clients are over 55, and at least thirty per cent are women. In addition, for the first time he is seeing couples with dogs.
Statistics Canada found that in 2015, the average monthly rent on the Coast was $1,051; it has since climbed to $1,531.
“It is a myth that people at the shelter are addicts,” Gaskin says. “These are people who can’t find housing on the Coast. At least six of the clients work.”
Nor is the shortage of accommodation not restricted to Sechelt: the hospital in Powell River recently inquired if it could send four women to the Sechelt shelter because there is no shelter there.
And the squeeze is getting tighter: St. Hilda’s recently asked staff to limit the number of clients to 15.
“It’s a safety issue,” says Gaskin. “People had to climb over one another if they wanted to go to the bathroom. And in this season, there is a very serious risk of an outbreak of flu, or other illnesses when people are sleeping so close together.
“There is a nasty strain of Australian flu going around, and homeless people don’t have a good immune system. They get one good meal at the shelter, but breakfast is toast, frankly, and they may not have access to food during the day.”
To prevent disease, staff members clean the floor with bleach every morning after the mattresses have been stacked away, disinfect the toilets and sanitize door handles.
“But most folks are still at risk,” says Gaskin, who is program manager for RainCity Housing’s homelessness services on the Sunshine Coast. “It sucks.”
Because of the lack of rentals on the Coast, people are staying at the shelter for longer periods. ”It’s quite sad some of them actually call this place ‘home’,” he says.
Between 8 am and 4 pm, the shelter is closed and the clients are pounding the pavement.
“Somebody recently told me that five years ago, he hardly saw homeless people in Sechelt. Now he sees a number of them; they are easy to spot. One man, for example, walks the same route every day, in the same clothes. It’s a shame to see clients stigmatized like that.”
The arrival of clients with dogs presents a new problem for the shelter: they can bark while people are trying to sleep, they may run around, and some people might be allergic, so the dogs have to sleep outside, tied to a chain link fence with a tarp draped over it, but no shelter from the wind and rain.
Gaskin has made construction of a large doghouse a priority and is looking for donations of lumber to give the dogs a roof over their heads.
Whole the shelter struggles to accommodate pets, the community has been less than supportive to their owners: BC Housing intends to build a temporary homeless shelter at the corner of Trail Avenue and Ebbtide Street, but has met with fierce opposition from people in the neighbourhood.
So when Tanya Hall, owner of The Upper Deck hostel on Wharf Street, attended the most recent open house, she realized the shelter would probably not get off the ground soon and wondered if her hostel might be an immediate solution. She approached BC Housing with a proposal to use it as a shelter for the winter and BC Housing jumped on her plan, offering to lease the building for two years.
“I absolutely support this,” Hall says. “It’s the only solution I can see for now. Everything is already there. This will definitely happen a lot faster than the original plan.”
Hall will move out of her own apartment to make room for shelter staff. The Upper Deck had good occupancy, she says, but she is confident the temporary workers and backpackers who stayed there will find somewhere else to stay.
The change requires a rezoning for “shelter residential,” but Hall does not expect problems. “Fifteen years ago, when I needed rezoning for a hostel, there was a lot of opposition, but there has never been a problem after it opened. People may look back and realize it was a bit of a waste of time.”
The Upper Deck could open as a shelter before the end of the year. The District of Sechelt’s Advisory Planning Commission has recommended that the Planning and Community Development Committee (PCDC) approve the rezoning on November 22. After a public information meeting by BC Housing, the item could be on council’s agenda on December 6 for first reading. A public hearing is potentially scheduled for December 19, with second, third and final readings on December 20 if all members of council are at the public hearing, municipal planner Angela Letman told The Coast Clarion. The rezoning could also be adopted at a special council meeting, she indicated.
Gaskin looks forward to The Upper Deck. It has six rooms, with shared bathrooms, there is a lounge with sofas, a computer, wifi, television, books, laundry facilities, and three meals a day can be prepared in the communal kitchen.
It can accommodate 20 clients, plus two staff in Hall’s apartment, and men and women will have separate rooms. Lots of women do not use the shelter at St. Hilda’s because they come from situations of violence and oppression and can’t imagine sleeping next to men they don’t know, Gaskin says. The Upper Deck will also allow dogs in some rooms.
There will be eight people on duty every day and clients will help staff. Peer projects, with clients working in the community, will provide work experience, and Hall says part of the property can be used to grow food for the shelter.
Gaskin is also happy that the clients can stay at the hostel all day if needed. “We try to help them with access to health care, referrals and references. The present shelter only opens at 4 pm, and by the time everyone is settled, it is 4:30 and everything is closed.”
Because The Upper Deck will be open 24/7, RainCity Housing is looking to hire more staff, and anybody with a kind heart can apply, says Gaskin: check the RainCity website for details.
As happy as he is with The Upper Deck, Gaskin points out that 20 beds is not enough. The temporary shelter at Trail and Ebbtide, with 35 to 40 beds, is still the objective. “We know of 90 people who are living in tents right now, in this weather.”
BC Housing has submitted a request for a lease for a temporary shelter at the corner of Trail and Ebbtide on October 17, but to date has not received a response from the District. Following approval to lease, a re-zoning application and Official Community Plan amendment would be required.
“This is a process that can take many months,” BC Housing said in an email.
BC Housing has also purchased a site on Hightide Avenue and plans to submit a proposal for the development of a 35-40-unit supported housing project for people on the Sunshine Coast who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
We hope you found this post interesting. Your donation will help us provide independent news in our community. Thank you.