Mission Community Services staff report some of the most fierce opponents to the expansion of bed space at the Haven in the Hollow have since become allies.
On Feb. 16, they gave a largely positive update to council on their progress, and continuing challenges working with people most affected by homelessness and the housing crisis.
“I think a lot of fear was that increasing the bed space would mean an increase in visibility,” said Tyler Weatherup, manager of housing and outreach at MCS. “But the reality is that people were already there.”
On Nov. 2, the shelter more than doubled their capacity, from 27 to 57 beds, a seemingly critical move in hindsight of the severe-cold snap freezing the Lower Mainland in recent weeks. By Nov. 4, the shelter reached capacity, and the beds have been continuously filled since.
From November to Feb. 1, the shelter activated its Extreme Weather Response 40 times, creating space for an additional eight adults. February’s icy temperatures put further strain on their capacity, with Weatherup estimating three to five people a day being turned away to other shelters.
“It’s not great, but its significantly lower since the expansion,” he said.
Changes in services have taken place since the space was added, especially in staffing and community engagement, the latter move being something that was “overdue,” according to Weatherup.
The shelter now has an on-call supervisor available 24/7, has increased the amount of support staff for direct care, and is making specific hires for its forward facing roles.
A neighbourhood advisory council was formed, and conducted its first meeting in December.
The monthly meetings bridge a variety of stakeholders together, such as funders, health authorities, district officials, bylaw enforcement, RCMP, neighbouring businesses and landowners, residents and the people using the shelter.
Some neighbours adamantly against the expansion are now active in these meetings and providing feedback, Weatherup said, adding decreases in petty theft, property damage and crime have been confirmed by the Mission RCMP’s call data.
He said calls for police service have increased slightly at the shelter address, but have decreased 25 per cent for neighbouring businesses over the same time period last year.
MCS has formed new partnerships with other service providers, and is looking to create a hub model seen in other Lower Mainland municipalities. They are working with the ministry of social development and poverty reduction, hoping to fast track applications and strengthen case management for individuals with greater needs.
Homeless camps at Horne Creek and behind FreshCo have been dismantled without issue by MCS and bylaw officers, Weatherup said, with all but one person agreeing to come to the shelter, and most staying.
He said entry at the shelter has changed in recent years to become more accessible for people with complex needs.
“They originally started camping because, probably two or three years ago, there was no space and they got tired of asking,” Weatherup said. “The shelter was higher barrier back then … Most people wanted to come in.”
But MCS is still challenged by a lack of housing, and increasing strain on the shelter’s capacity as the economic impacts from COVID-19 are felt.
Staff are working under a “housing first” strategy, but are having trouble keeping up in a rapidly changing environment where many have lost their jobs, said Michelle Puffer, executive director of MCS.
Weatherup said even though he expects strain on the shelter to increase annually, affordable housing is still needed more than a second shelter in the community.
“We have people who are ready to move, who are ready to make those choices to get housed,” he said. “But a lack of housing means that we can’t act. And that can be very discouraging for folks … when there’s no hope that there’s a step beyond the shelter.”