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New West considers a 50-bed shelter at the former Army & Navy store on Columbia Street

Extreme weather response shelter could operate until funding available for emergency response shelter

A 50-bed emergency shelter is being proposed in the former Army & Navy department store.

The Lower Mainland Purpose Society has applied for a temporary use permit so it can operate an emergency shelter on the lower floor of the former Army & Navy Store. The shelter would be accessible off of Front Street.

A report to council states the space could be used for an extreme weather response program shelter (which would be operational from Nov. 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022) or an emergency response centre, which would provide up to 50 mats or beds for adults and could offer support services.

On Monday, council gave notice that it will consider issuance of a temporary use permit for an emergency shelter at 502 Columbia St. The temporary use permit will allow the Purpose Society to operate a shelter in the space for a period of up to three years, at which time it would have to cease providing the emergency shelter or apply for an extension to the temporary use permit.

John Stark, the city’s supervisor of community planning, said the temporary use permit (TUP) would initially allow the space to be used for an extreme weather response program shelter, which would be activated during extreme weather events.

“It will likely have 40 mats for adults and, if the TUP is approved by council, it could be operational shortly after Nov. 15,” he said. “The city has advocated for a 24/7 shelter with supports which could be operational for 18 months or until new supportive housing is in place. At this time, there is no provincial funding for a 24/7 shelter. If provincial funding was provided and a 24/7 shelter was operationalized, then it would replace the extreme weather response program shelter.”

Mayor Jonathan Cote said the city feels there’s a need to have a permanent emergency shelter there that’s seven days a week, given the needs and challenges the city is seeing with an increased homelessness in New Westminster.

“There are conversations with the provincial government about funding this housing,” he told the Record. “It’s not clear yet whether the project will actually have funding to be a full emergency shelter or if there will only be funding for extreme weather. So we are kind of setting ourselves up to support both, whatever the provincial government is able to fund.”

Cote said he recently had a “really good conversation” with B.C. Attorney General David Eby about the issue and stressed how urgent this issue is in New Westminster.

“The provincial government appears to be responding and becoming more proactive on that, which is a good sign,” he said. “We are heading into the colder, wetter season, and from our perspective, at the very least we need the extreme weather shelter set up as soon as possible.”

According to a Nov. 1 report to council, there are currently 52 emergency shelter beds in New West, no extreme weather response shelter mats and no emergency response centre shelter beds.

“The unsheltered homeless population is estimated in the hundreds, and three to four times the pre-pandemic number,” said the staff report. “Winter is fast approaching, and a fourth wave of the pandemic is threatening to be the worst yet.”

In past years, Lookout Housing and Health Society operated an extreme weather response program on the lower floor of the Cliff Block on Clarkson Street, but that space is no longer available. That space accommodated 30 men and women before the pandemic, but was reduced to 16 men after the pandemic because of physical distancing requirements.

Extreme weather response shelters are funded by the province through BC Housing. Individual communities determine what weather conditions warrant an extreme weather alert, at which time those beds or mats can be made available to people who have no homes.

Coun. Mary Trentadue recently said that time is of the essence when it comes to providing emergency shelter beds in New West.

“Winter is here, practically,” she said. “It is certainly raining and cold out.”

BC Housing could not be reached for comment before the Record's deadline.

At Monday night’s meeting, Coun. Chuck Puchmayr gave a shoutout to Jacqui Cohen, owner of the Army & Navy property, for allowing an emergency shelter to be located in the building.

“This is probably the only spot in New Westminster currently that is large enough for that. So, kudos,” he said. “It might be nice of us to send a letter to her thanking her for permitting that. And kudos to Purpose for coming forward to provide that very needed service.”

Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus
Email tmcmanus@newwestrecord.ca