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British Columbia Warm spaces for homeless in short supply during Vancouver cold snap

A homeless person sleeps outside a church in downtown Vancouver in March 2015.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The coldest winter snap in almost a decade has pushed Vancouver into an unusual scramble to find any warm spaces for homeless people – a task that some advocates say has been complicated by the province's decision to stop collecting information on people turned away from shelters. "Really, there's no way to track the need now. It becomes very challenging for municipalities trying to advocate for services," said DJ Larkin, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society.

She sent a message to the city last week urging the city to do more after temperatures plummeted and a man died Wednesday night outdoors after being turned away from one of the temporary winter shelters that have become the norm in Vancouver since 2008.

As a result, the city opened up three community centres Friday for people to come in and get warm, allowing them to stay overnight if they wanted. About 90 came in the first day and 70 stayed overnight. That dropped to 70 and 50 the next two nights.

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While Ms. Larkin said it's not clear yet what the cause of death was for the man turned away from a shelter on Wednesday, his inability to find a warm place to stay that night was just one sign of a much larger homelessness problem in the region that became evident this year.

Ms. Larkin and others said the weather this year made it clear that the province's system of permanent shelters, temporary winter shelters that stay open 24/7 for several months, and emergency shelter spaces that open only in the evenings during very cold or wet weather is inadequate, as is the data for them.

"I do think we could all be working with better information about what's available," said Mary Clare Zak, Vancouver's managing director of social policy who organized the temporary opening of community centres to take in people for the three exceptionally cold nights last week. "Turn-away data is not perfect data but it is an indicator of trends. It would be helpful."

The province stopped requiring shelter operators to collect data on people turned away from shelters two years ago, saying it was often inaccurate. A single person might be counted multiple times because he or she went to several shelters in a single night, trying to get in.

Shelter operators say they do track how many people stay overnight, and that gives the province insight into demand, since some nights the shelters will take in more people than they're mandated to, in order to keep people out of the cold.

But Judy Graves, who worked at the city doing outreach to homeless people before retiring three years ago, said this winter has proved there are still significant holes in efforts to help homeless people.

For example, the province agreed this year to fund a temporary 40-bed winter shelter on First Avenue near Commercial Drive.

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But, Ms. Graves, who still does volunteer work with homeless people, said there was no tracking of turn-aways, such as the man who ultimately died after being told there was no space there.

As well, no extra emergency shelters had been set up within walking distance of the First Avenue shelter for people turned away there.

"You have to have someone on the street to see where these shelters are needed," she said. "We've really got to have more of a response as we've got more people out there."

After the city agreed to open three community centres last Friday, many went to the Britannia community centre on Commercial Drive near the First Avenue shelter. The province and city have now announced that three of the shelters normally open only on extreme bad-weather days will stay open every night until the end of January.

That was welcomed by advocates, who have been making the case for years that the region needs more shelters that stay open for several months in the winter, because homeless people often don't hear about or won't come to shelters that are open only sporadically.

The province did adopt the Vancouver model for Surrey and Maple Ridge as of last year, funding temporary shelters there that stay open for several winter months.

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The city of Vancouver has 956 permanent shelter beds, out of about 1,800 in the region. It has 195 temporary winter shelter spaces this winter, and 234 emergency beds available. The last homeless count in Metro Vancouver showed that another 1,000 people were sleeping outside as well on the night the count was done.

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