During a wet and cold winter, Powell River’s homeless live invisibly, day to day, on the edges of the community.
“Invisibility is the nature of being homeless,” said Powell River Community Resource Centre (CRC) manager Martyn Woolley. “If you’re not invisible, you get hassled, moved along or whatever else.”
Woolley said homeless people live near the pole line, sleep on the porch at Westview Baptist Church and behind stores and under overhangs on Marine Avenue.
“I have guys living off of the pole line in town,” he said. “If you go up onto the pole line, you’ll find a guy living in a camp in a truck out there.”
Advocates who work on behalf of the homeless do not know how many are living in the city.
According to Larry Gerow, community outreach worker at Powell River Salvation Army, an estimate of the number of people living in the woods, couch-surfing, pitching tents in campgrounds, living in cars or on the street is not available.
“I’m working on seeing if we can determine the numbers so we can possibly try to get a cold/wet weather shelter here in the future,” said Gerow, who added that he plans to complete a homeless count early in the new year.
Even without the numbers, Woolley and Gerow said they have seen enough to know a homeless shelter is desperately needed in Powell River.
When the homeless count is completed, it will be forwarded to BC Housing and “if BC Housing will get on board, then they’ll fund us so we can open up a shelter,” said Gerow.
Gerow said Pidcock House in Comox Valley is an example of what can be done in Powell River. The emergency shelter provides 14 beds for people, as well as showers, a laundry facility, meals and access to skills training and recovery services.
“It’s a house, an actual private residence, turned into a shelter,” said Gerow. “One floor is for women, the other floor is for men. They have the regular community kitchen and the living room is a common area.”
Comox Valley has extreme weather response protocols. When conditions include temperatures near zero with rainfall, it becomes difficult or impossible for homeless people to remain dry. During periods of sleet, freezing rain, snow accumulation, sustained high winds or temperatures at or below -2 degrees Celsius, 30 extra shelter beds are made available.
In 2013, Pidcock House received a $500,000 annual funding commitment from the province to provide 24/7 support to the homeless.
“If the numbers warrant it, we should be able to go that way in a home setting, not a big building,” said Gerow.
However, Woolley said he wonders if Powell River needs a year-round, 24/7 homeless shelter.
“In the summer, will it get utilized? Maybe,” he said. “What we really need is a cold/wet weather shelter; an emergency shelter.”
Currently, in an emergency situation, options available for CRC and Salvation Army clients include hotels and Powell River Harbour Guesthouse and Hostel.
At the hostel, dorm room bunk beds were $25 per night but, according to hostel owner Edwin Wirth, they will no longer be available in the new year. Private rooms will still be open for the nightly rate of $63.25, said Wirth.
While a hotel or hostel room works in an emergency situation to keep someone out of cold and wet weather for a night or two, it is only a short-term solution.
According to Woolley, there is an increase in the number of people dropping in at the CRC during the day for cups of coffee, or they seek a warm seat at a fast-food restaurant or Powell River Public Library.
Sometimes, nothing can be done, said Gerow.
“I just had a mother and her 20-year-old son come in and we had no money to put them into hotels,” he said. “There are situations where we have put people into the hostel, but it all depends on their situation. We put them up for a day or two, but a lot of them are homeless and they’re not going to have any money for a while; it gets quite expensive.”
CRC client Christine McKiernon said she was recently evicted and is rooming with a friend temporarily while she tries to find adequate housing. McKiernon said the CRC provides essential services to people like her who are in need of housing and other support.
“They feed us here and they have clothing for us,” she said. “They also help people connect with housing when they can, which is very important.”
Woolley said for people on social assistance, rent can often be more than the monthly cheque they receive.
In addition to rent, food is also an issue. An individual can go to the food bank once per month for a hamper that often will not last for four weeks.
Other comforts that the majority of Powell River residents take for granted, including heat, are also difficult to afford for some.
“We see an increase in clients not turning on their heat in this weather because they can’t afford it,” said Woolley. “I can name three guys who, from November through March, do not turn on their heat. They’ll hang blankets on their walls to cut draft.”
Ultimately, there needs to be a determined effort by government to address such relevant contributors as drug addiction, mental illness and crime, said Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons.
“If you want to talk about people who are homeless, have no place to go and need shelter, you can’t just talk about homelessness,” said Simons. “You have to talk about the lack of responses from our mental-health system and from our addiction support and treatment programs.”