Work is underway to try and find a place to shelter homeless folks in New Westminster this winter.
Coun. Chuck Puchmayr said COVID-19 initially missed the more marginalized population, but that’s starting to change.
“It’s now starting to hit our most marginalized people. I am not sure of infections in New West, but certainly I am aware of a few in the Downtown Eastside area,” he said. “It’s a really critical piece here. That whole idea about putting them in a warm, large facility was to try to monitor the infection and be on top of it so that isolation protocols could be implemented. I think the urgency is rising, as the autumn and the winter come before us. Whatever can happen, the sooner the better.”
In response to COVID-19, BC Housing opened a 40-bed emergency response centre in the Massey gymnasium at New Westminster Secondary School in May. The program, which included shelter, meals, access to health services and more, closed in July.
Puchmayr said COVID-19 has resulted in fewer emergency shelter beds because of social distancing requirements. He said there wasn’t room in shelters for all of the people who were transferred out of the temporary facility at the Massey complex.
“The weather is changing,” he said. “I just want to know, is there any progress being made towards looking for another facility? I know that the size of the emergency response shelter is cut in half because of COVID. … I am just really concerned and wanted to know if there was anything on the horizon with regard to some safe, warm shelter for the many homeless that we now have in our streets.”
John Stark, the city’s supervisor of community planning, said city staff are working with BC Housing, which is actively working to identify opportunities in New West.
“They recognize the importance, given that we are going into the fall’s cold, wet weather,” he said. “They are looking at that, trying to come up with a short-term solution until longer-term supportive housing can be developed.”
In the spring, a number of locations were considered for the emergency response centre, including city-owned sites and private facilities.
“Some of the difficulties we are encountering is trying to provide a large enough space that would facilitate physical distancing,” Stark told council Oct. 5. “Typically, that is best accomplished through a large area like a gymnasium or potentially a warehouse. So those are considerations. Location is also a limiting factor. We are trying to locate space in and around the downtown, potentially the uptown, so folks can actually access those spaces and also be in close contact with services too.”
A report to council from the vulnerable and at-risk populations task force stated city staff are continuing to work with BC Housing regarding the development of new supportive housing for people who are homeless or at extreme risk of homelessness.
“A possible site has been identified, which could accommodate between 40 and 50 units,” said the report. “BC Housing is still doing its due diligence with regard to the possible purchase of the site and its development, which would likely require an official community plan amendment and a rezoning. City staff are also exploring possible opportunities related to the federal government’s Reaching Home program and Rapid Housing initiative.”