‘We want to make sure that everybody gets inside’: Victoria agencies prepare for emergency shelter space

Victoria, BC

As colder and wetter weather arrives for the winter, Victoria’s emergency shelter providers are concerned about their ability to increase the number of beds available.

“Folks find themselves in situations that [at] the last minute they need somewhere to go to that’s safe,” said Leah Young, director of Housing and Shelter for Our Place Society. “We also find folks, especially going into the colder months, they might be camping outdoors, and once the weather turns wet and cold that they need that indoor shelter setting.”

“Staying in a tent is not ideal and so when the weather gets cold or they have snowfall, tents aren't really set up to withstand the cold, and the wetness and the snow,” she added.

Our Place Society offers a variety of programs to help shelter the unhoused population in Victoria, including a nightly emergency facility with 34 beds that operates from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. on Pandora Street.

Once individuals secure a bed at the nightly emergency shelter, they are guaranteed that spot as long as they arrive each night by a certain time, shared Young, who said this gives people consistency.

“They know where they can stay, and it’s safe,” said Young, adding that individuals are then able to fill out a referral form for Our Place Transitional home, located on Yates Street.

Young is currently working on an additional 20 mats that would operate during the winter season, from the end of October through to the end of March, though she is unsure if these mats will be used throughout this season.

“We've added a lot of housing units over the last few years, which has been amazing, but we really do still need those shelter spaces when folks are experiencing the weather or…[are] newly homeless,” said Young. “Those spaces are super important as a stepping stone into getting support in place.”

“I think there's been a really good emphasis on more supportive housing units, but I think we also have to really continue to look at shelter spaces,” she added. “There really isn't enough shelter spaces.”

When it comes to winter response, Young said providers and funders are often starting the conversation last-minute in September or October as the colder weather is arriving.

“We know the cold weather is going to be there, so I'm really pushing [to] start the conversations earlier, in April,” said Young. “That allows us to communicate more and [be] transparent with the folks that we are trying to serve.”

It’s critical for the society to be prepared for when emergency space is needed, and this this information is communicated to Victoria’s homeless population.

“It's hard enough for us to get staffing [and] making sure that there's a space,” said Young. “But the folks that are unhoused, they don't know what's going on, so they don't know where to turn to.”

Karen Mills, co-founder and lead coordinator for the Peer2Peer Indigenous Society in Victoria, expressed similar concerns as Young and hopes conversations of seasonal shelters can begin earlier in the year.

“Last year we were discussing it and it snowed,” said Mills.

The Point-in-Time homelessness survey conducted on March 7, 2023 identified 1,665 people experiencing homelessness that night in Victoria, with 33 per cent identifying as Indigenous.

Jonathan Hopkins, executive director of the city’s Salvation Army Addiction and Rehabilitation Centre, said that although there has been a rise in the Point-in-Time Count since the 2020 survey, the numbers are lower than they were suspected to be.

The Salvation Army Addiction and Rehabilitation Centre, they operates an emergency weather shelter for both males and females, which includes 30 mats on nights with extreme weather alerts.

“One of the challenges with emergency weather is that it is called… when the weather gets cold during the months of November through March,” said Hopkins. “We'd like to see more stability and consistency because it enables us to have more staff on hand and available to assist people when they come in.”

“It'd be nicer to have a longer consistent funding arrangement, where we don't just kind of jump into action whenever the weather gets cold, but we have a consistency throughout those months where people know, okay, there’s shelter services every single night, regardless of a few degrees in temperature,” he added.

Hopkins suggested that services such as case management for those experiencing crisis, including health care responders to treat wounds and sores, would be a beneficial addition.

“There just needs to be more coordination and effort between agencies and our government partners about making sure that we cover all of those areas that the people need when they come in to receive help,” said Hopkins. “We do need more federal and provincial government support, we need more funding.”

“We want to make sure that everybody gets inside and gets connected to services,” said Young. 

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