Pods were being delivered to the former Stuart Wood elementary in downtown Kamloops on Monday, with plans to open the gymnasium as a shelter for the homeless in coming weeks.
Nanette Drobot, BC Housing’s regional director of operations in the Interior, said she expects between 20 and 25 shelter beds to open there within two weeks.
Other work underway includes the addition of construction fencing and a hygiene cart, essentially a C-can filled with portable toilets and showers. Unlike when it was a shelter in recent years, Stuart Wood will operate 24 hours per day, not just overnight, this winter.
“I think when we are really thinking about concerns of businesses, concerns of neighbourhoods and really trying to provide the best service, you really do need a 24-hour service and you need to staff it appropriately so there are a number of staff there to ensure people have the proper care and to ensure that, if business calls, the operator can actually talk to the person and deal with whatever they can deal with,” Drobot said. “I think that it’s a shift because it’s the right thing to do and it’s best practise.”
The city is currently short 90 shelter beds.
“Opening a winter shelter is good, but it still doesn’t fill the urgent need that we are seeing,” Canadian Mental Health Association executive director Alfred Achoba said, noting he is frustrated with Kamloops being “reactive” versus preventive.
“If we have a cold snap, then we do what we did earlier this year, which is put people on mats,” Achoba said.
“You know, I may have to activate Rosethorn, activate any other site we have. That would be the plan, to use all of the resources we have. At the moment, it is frustrating to know that we only have 25 beds that will basically fill up the day they open.”
Two other shelters are planned — one in the former Greyhound building in Southgate and another to be constructed on vacant property on Kingston Avenue in North Kamloops. Those shelters are expected to open in early 2022, but no exact dates could be provided.
Drobot said having people in the cold is of “grave concern” to BC Housing.
“We’ve been at the table for months, years in fact,” she said.
“It does seem like we talk about this every single year and it feels like we’re scrambling every single year. We don’t have locations. And if we did, we wouldn’t be doing this.”
Drobot said BC Housing relies on the city or private property owners for shelter locations, but noted that as soon as private property owners learn BC Housing wants the property for shelter, negotiations stop.
Drobot said shelters are divisive in communities. In some cases, she said, owners may want to lease to BC Housing until neighbours get upset. She said it is also an issue in other communities.
“That’s our major barrier for shelter services,” Drobot said.
We have the funding. We can get operators. It’s just the sites and, in this case, all these three sites were something that the City of Kamloops came forward with as opportunities for us and we actioned them as fast as we could.”
Drobot said negotiations for the Greyhound building occurred relatively recently, following approval from city council. She said it is helpful for the city to come to BC Housing with locations as it knows which neighbourhoods make sense.
The Greyhound building will be renovated into a shelter space called Merit Place, providing an additional 50 beds. An assessment of that work and costs associated is underway. Lease of that property is for 18 months, into the spring of 2023.
“When you convert a warehouse space, it really is a matter of bringing the pods up and constructing them, bringing the hygiene carts back in and then putting the construction fencing in,” Drobot said.
“I don’t think it will be too much. We’re very hopeful it won’t be too much and we can get things rolling.”
The Greyhound location will replace shelter space currently located at Memorial Arena downtown.
The hockey community is anxious to regain access to the arena amidst a shortage of ice times, though it remains unclear when in 2022 the arena will be utilized again for recreational purposes.
The North Kamloops shelter, meanwhile, will look a little different because it will be constructed on vacant land owned by the city, on Kingston Avenue under the Halston Bridge.
Drobot said the city is leasing the property to BC Housing at a “nominal” cost for three years, with options to extend for two years.
She said it will be a modular building, similar to what is seen on Mission Flats Road — the Mission Flats Manor project — allowing fast construction and individual rooms. Drobot said a similar shelter is opening this week in West Kelowna.
“I’m really excited about this approach because it’s so quick,” she said.
“Again, another opportunity for people to have some dignity in the process and another type of approach for the operators, for CMHA to learn about this new way of shelters instead of this congregate way that they’re used to, say at Memorial Arena or at the curling club or at Stuart Wood, for example,” Drobot said.