Sunday, December 21, 2008


Oldtown News
Vancouver, BC


Last night I visited the new shelter that our newly elected Mayor has requested be opened.

Located in a deserted area under the Granville bridge in an area that is basically isolated I had decided to walk there from Burrard and Davie Street since I wanted to go by the 7-eleven store where Tracey the resident door opener, at her makeshift shelter across the street, had burned to death on Friday morning.

In place of Tracey at 7-eleven were two homeless men, Ken and Dave. Ken in in his 40's and wasn't high or on drugs. In fact he opened the door for me with a nice friendly greeting. Dave sat on the cold sidewalk facing the entrance doors of 7-eleven. Although Dave was bundled up with blankets I could see he was shivering. Even without blankets I felt the frigid Arctic air as snow began to fall. This was close to 10pm.

I had a good conversation with Ken until the City of Vancouver funded Downtown Ambassadors came along. They informed Ken that he was not allowed to open the door for 7-eleven customers and that if he continued to do so the police would be called.

I asked James and David, the Ambassador workers why the police would be called since Ken wasn't doing anything to hurt people. James informed me that opening doors for customers is considered an "act of aggression" and I asked what would happen to Ken if he continued opening the door for customers. The Ambassadors informed me that if police are called and they determine that Ken has been given 3 warnings, he would be jailed under the trespass and police acts.

I spoke with Ken a bit mare and he informed me that he had recently had cancer for a second time and had surgery four months ago for it. He had been cut-off welfare on Friday and the reason explained to him for denying him benefits was that he was a single employable male. I relayed to Ken that there was a new shelter which had just opened a few hours ago, relatively close-by (six blocks away) although for people with health issues, walking 6 blocks in freezing temperatures probably seems like 5 miles.

Interestingly, this new shelter is tucked away under the Granville bridge and as I walked over to it, alone, a feeling of vulnerability engulfed me. The shelter is not easy to locate and even I had difficulty finding it.

Upon arriving at Gregor's new shelter which is being overseen by RainCity Housing, I was greeted by a staff member named Adam who has worked at RainCity for seven years. I introduced myself and let him know what my purpose was in visiting the shelter. Adam provided me an overview of the rules (there are none) and what the shelter provides.

The shelter is in a warehouse which has seen better days. Actually it is a former booze can and is rather small. Upon entry are a couple of tables that are set up in a U shape where portable steam units are resting on the tables. There was food inside these steamers provided to the homeless citizens and this is great. At least the homeless here are not going to bed hungry.

This shelter has camping-style-cots with portable foamers, the kind you see at Army and Navy department store. A blanket is provided to the shelter guests, which totalled eight last night. I didn't see staff providing any pillows and I was happy for the camper-style-cots since the shelter floor is cement. The camper-cots were lined up beside one another which afforded the homeless no privacy.

The shopping cart shelter which is being called Gregor's shelter has two washrooms which include a basic sink and toilet and no showers. Moreover, it has no insulation and the cold enters easily.

Staff offered warm clothes and even though the sheltered citizens were not in anything resembling a home, a few interacted with one another. A couple of the sheltered though were very quiet and it seemed like their spirits had been broken down.

During my visit which lasted two hours, I noticed how cold it was and the lights continually flickered very low and at one point they completely went out.

Staff were aware that there was no heat and thought that the steamers might be drawing up the energy. The two staff had discussion around whether they should purchase portable heaters with one staff, Kristoff, saying he was concerned over the energy the portables would draw.

Staff informed me that police had brought in about three of the homeless citizens and I hope media pay close attention to this since our Mayor has gone on record that he is working with the police on options to compel citizens to go into the shelters.

Gregor's shelter remains open until 10am at which time the over-nighters must leave.

As I departed at midnight I had deep concerns that this shopping cart shelter was still without heat.

I made my way home in the snow and I couldn't help thinking of how sad it is that our society has come to warehousing people like what I had just witnessed. I was unsettled not knowing how our homeless would cope in the morning. I thought where are they to get food in this area and what are they going to do with themselves all day. Where are they going to go?

The only place to obtain food in the area of Gregor's shelter is the city-funded Gathering Place, however, you need funds since the food is not free and as we know the homeless don't have any money.

Of course another option for the homeless is the sandwich line-up at the Sisters of Atonement over a mile away and walking in this weather for that distance and then standing in line when you are broke and starving is disastrous to one's mental and physical health. Then again so is being homeless.

As i tried to fall asleep, images of the shopping cart shelter continually played out in my mind. I couldn't help thinking that citizens being held in jail, are provided three meals a day plus snacks. Jail cells are heated and there is no worry about being chased out in the morning.

As I finally drifted off to a very restless sleep as I'm certain as did many of our homeless population, I reflected on how criminals in jails fare better in our society than our homeless.

Perhaps though for Gregor and his friends on his newly formed HEAT council, shelters are cheaper than jail cells and I'm left thinking that these shelters are the new poor-man's jails.

As I'm writing this difficult piece Sunday morning and with huge buckets of snow on the ground and falling, I have learned that Victoria, BC has just opened up an emergency daytime shelter so people can be kept safe and secure, watching TV or playing cards with food to eat. Vancouver must immediately do the same.

HEAT is meeting today and media must place calls to their members and find out where citizens can go during the day to get out of these harsh conditions.

Open up at least one or both of the empty army barracks on Dunsmuir Street or across the Burrard bridge. Surely we would do this in a disaster and that disaster is now.

Jamie Lee Hamilton
(778) 329-1981