Amid predictions that Vancouver is in store for one of its coldest winters in 20 years, the B.C. government has cut support for temporary homeless shelters in the city.
The decision not to fund four shelters with capacity for 160 beds that operated last winter led city representatives to charge that lives may be at risk during the coming months.
"If there are not enough shelters, historically, the homeless have stayed outside and tried to survive," Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said Tuesday. "We've let people die on our streets in recent years, so it's critical that we have enough beds."
Councillor Kerry Jang, who is sponsoring a council motion next week calling on the province to renew its shelter commitment from last year, said he was "absolutely disappointed" by the decision to reduce the number of winter shelter beds.
"This isn't about politics," said Dr. Jang, a professor of psychiatry. "I'm a health professional, and this is a matter of life and death. We've seen too many deaths in the past. We don't want to see that repeated."
Minister for Housing Rich Coleman said Tuesday that the province believes the extra spaces will not be needed, thanks to more than 300 units of new, permanent social housing units that have opened up since the beginning of the year.
As a result, B.C. will fund only three so-called HEAT shelters with capacity for 340 beds this winter, cutting off money to four other shelters with 160 spaces for the homeless that opened from last December to March.
"They are not going to open, [because]our numbers tell us that this winter we won't need those particular shelters," Mr. Coleman said, after presiding with Mr. Robertson and Alice Wong, federal minister of state for seniors, at the ceremonial opening of a 105-unit social housing development in downtown Vancouver.
He contended that projects like these have lessened the need for extra shelter capacity this winter. "Homeless numbers have gone down across the province.… We have enough beds for people," he said.
A U.S. weather forecasting company this week predicted that this year could be one of Vancouver's top-three coldest winters in the past 20 years.
Mr. Coleman said the province will fund an extra 100 spaces for the homeless to be available during extremely bad weather. "If there is a spike this winter, we have the ability to adjust our operations to be able to cope," he said.
He said street homelessness is down significantly, not just in Vancouver but across the province.
"Things are really improving, dramatically as far as I'm concerned," he said. "You can't find another jurisdiction in North America where homeless numbers are down."
Mr. Coleman said the province is spending about half a million dollars on this year's winter shelter plan for Vancouver.
But Dr. Jang said that is well down from the $2-million B.C. spent last winter. He said the four temporary shelters funded last year – in Kitsilano, False Creek, the West End and Mount Pleasant neighbourhoods – were packed every night. "Now, they won't be there, and the demand is still there."
Mr. Robertson said the city will continue to press the province for more help to provide more winter beds for the homeless.
"I'm not giving up that we can find a solution here," he said. "Given the winter that we are expecting, I'm very concerned that we will not have enough beds to keep people off the street."