Monday, June 15, 2009

Shelters form the Backbone of Marginalized Community

One of the most inspiring things I've witnessed recently has been the generosity and general sense of hope implicit in the New Fountain Shelter. Here is a community built on compassion, which helps in a very real way some of our poorest citizens.

The New Fountain, along with four other shelters has been baring the brunt of the homelessness crisis and were opened roughly half a year ago as an emergency shelter. Since then they've assisted dozens of people to find permanent housing, pick up career skills, and provided a safe and respectful place for young and old to stay.

Safe and respect are key words here. No violence or violent individuals are tolerated and mounted in the staff room is a small list of names of violent offenders who have been permanently barred from the shelter.

"They're predators," said one of the staff members. "They come here to sell drugs and prey on our clients. When they do so, we ask them politely to leave."

A few hours in one of the shelters is illustrative.
The clients vary in age and appearance. Some have recently been released from jail. Others sport large gashes and open soars. Most seem very happy to have a bed to sleep on where they need not worry getting robbed while they sleep. Almost everyone is incredibly polite to service staff who hand out syringes, medical supplies, toiletries, donated clothing, and cookies generously.

The New Fountain is also equipped with a soup kitchen where residents can come for a quick meal. In the corner there's a small TV with a small group of folks camped out around it sweating in the heat. The shelter smells of vegetable soup. Everything is clean and tidy.

Other people are in their rooms - small 10 X 10 foot rooms with a canvas sheet serving as a door. We're note talking about the Hilton here. There are two beds in each room and around 15 - 20 rooms in the shelter. Since the shelter is intended to be as low barrier as possible, pets sometimes stay with clients in their rooms.

"Sometimes a dog, cat, mouse or other animal is the only friend the person has," said one outreach worker. "If we don't let them bring in their pet, they won't come in themselves. We try to keep the barriers as low as possible so we can help as many people as possible."

Many of the residents living in the shelter these days are worried. New Fountain and the four other shelters like it opened as part of the city's HEAT (Homeless Emergency Action Team) initiative have funding for now - but that funding could well dry up at the end of June. If it does, many of the folks who now have a home (for many this is the first home they've had in years) could find themselves alone and back on the street.

The diaspora that would follow would be tragic. One of the most commendable and advantageous things about the New Fountain and other shelters like it is that they provide a hub of community. Not only do they rejuvenate people who have suffered years on the street but they provide dozens of clients with services from helping them find employment to locking down more permanent housing. Here truly is a place where everyone knows your name.

The emergency shelters are critical because they are the first rung in the ladder of recovery. Without this rung, many people will find it almost impossible to climb out of homelessness - despite an earnest wish to do so. Let's hope the BC Liberal government agrees.