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Vancouver asked to close warming centres for homeless people

People arrive at the Britannia Overnight Warming Centre in Vancouver on Jan. 9, 2017.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver's snap decision in mid-December to open its community centres for homeless people to stay warm overnight was poorly conceived and made families and staff feel unsafe, some park-board and community-centre representatives say.

As a result, three board commissioners from the city's minority political party have asked that all community centres be closed as warming centres for this winter.

They also want new a policy to be developed to ensure a better-run and better-located program for periods when temperatures fall below zero, as they have in recent weeks.

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"This was done without a lot of thought," said Non-Partisan Association commissioner Sarah Kirby-Yung, who asked for a special board meeting to discuss the issue on Thursday.

"We are absolutely concerned about the chronic homeless, but we run parks. We're not equipped to deal single-handedly with the homeless situation. We had a lot of scared and nervous staff."

She also said some families started to say they did not want to go to the centres any more because they did not feel safe.

But a homeless advocacy group says the move would put people back onto the street in dangerously cold conditions.

If staff felt scared or unprepared, the better solution would be to provide more training and support rather than kicking out homeless people, said DJ Larkin of the Pivot Legal Society.

"The last two days, we've seen people sleeping outside Creekside [Community Recreation Centre, which had been one of the warming locations] at 6 a.m. Is that safer for the city?"

As well, the two Green Party commissioners on the board said they think the centres performed a valuable service that should be considered again.

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"I'm really pleased and proud the park board partnered with the city," said Stuart Mackinnon. "I think this is an important initiative to protect and, if this happened against next year, I hope we would do this again."

Board chair Michael Wiebe said the reality is that the park system is home to many homeless people already and the board will have to continue to grapple with the issue.

Everyone agrees that, if the program were to happen again, park-board staff would need more training and support, and better procedures would be needed.

None of the centres had special boxes for discarded needles, as other facilities do.

Creekside, in the heart of the former Olympic athletes' village, had no turnaround time between when the overnight homeless visitors left at 8 a.m. and when children, parents and others started arriving for programs. Two parents complained that their children had come in contact with discarded needles.

Dave Pasin, the president of the West End Community Centre, which shut its warming centre on Wednesday, two days after the one at Creekside was closed, said staff were sometimes on shift at night with only a security guard or janitor as back-up.

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"It came to a head on Tuesday, after Monday night where there were altercations, people were getting stoned on the premises, I was told a guy was shooting up in front of a kid."

City planners contacted park-board staff in mid-December to ask if some centres could be opened at night after it became apparent that all permanent and temporary winter shelters were filling up in Vancouver because of freezing temperatures. One man died after sleeping outside near Commercial Drive around that time.

Mr. Pasin said the city did not consult community-centre associations. Instead, centres started opening at night on Dec. 17 after only a couple of days of planning.

Four warming centres are still open, but three are in or near the Downtown Eastside – Britannia, Carnegie Centre and the Evelyne Saller Centre – and one is near the Granville Bridge downtown, at the Quality Inn.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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