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The Globe and Mail

B.C.'s cold weather sparks concerns about adequate shelter space

Homeless people sleep in double-bunk beds in the former chapel of the First United Church on the Downtown eastside of Vancouver April 27, 2010.

Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail/jeff vinnick The Globe and Mail

Winter-like weather has arrived in Vancouver before the needed number of cold-weather shelters.

There are three seasonal shelters in the city that are mostly funded by the B.C government, down from seven that were open during the Olympics. This means that, at the start of a winter expected to be harsher than the last, many more homeless people will be forced to choose between jam-packed shelters or the streets.

"We desperately need the other four shelters so that we can bring the others inside, and so we're not overcrowding," said Judy Graves, housing advocate for the city.

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B.C. Housing Minister Rich Coleman announced up to 312 more shelter spaces on Friday, but these spots are "extreme weather shelter beds" that will only be available on an emergency basis. The province and the city are still negotiating the number of cold-weather shelters that will be funded for the season, so more shelters could open by the end of the winter.

Last year's four additional shelters were smaller, housing about 35 people each, but targeted areas of known homelessness outside of the Downtown Eastside.

The First United Church, a seasonal shelter, already has people sleeping on the floor.

"Our philosophy is that we don't turn people away unless they have somewhere else to go," said Ric Matthews, executive director of First United Church, adding that people need "something more stable than a place to not die."

According to figures issued by the province on Friday, Vancouver and North Vancouver have 703 year-round shelter spaces and 340 seasonal cold or wet weather spaces - a total of 1,043.

Although most of the city's homeless were able to find shelter space last year, about 400 people slept on the street.

"The mayor is talking to B.C. Housing about this right now and we're working on where and when and how," said Councillor Kerry Jang, a member of the city's Homeless Emergency Action Team.

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"There's simply not enough space, despite all that we've done," Mr. Jang said. "The backlog had just grown and grown."

This winter the Pacific Northwest may also be hit by La Niña, which would mean colder, wetter weather on top of an increased likelihood of extreme weather events, according to the Climate Prediction Center in Washington. General temperatures are heading below zero this weekend, and Environment Canada issued a 5 to 10 cm snowfall warning on Friday.

Mr. Coleman could not be reached for comment.

"Leaving people outside is shameful," said Ms. Graves, who adds she remembers days when no one slept on Vancouver's streets. "This should not be a part of normal."

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