The operator of a shelter for the street-entrenched population in Penticton, B.C. said it is “heart-wrenching” to turn people away, as it grapples with red tape to open a new emergency shelter and temperatures drop.
“We are turning away a few people every day,” said Tony Laing, Penticton and District Society for Community Living (PDSCL) CEO.
The social services agency operates the Compass House complex, which contains a supportive housing and year-round shelter facility on Main Street.
But it’s at capacity and the operator said it can’t open 20 more winter beds like it usually does, due to pandemic protocols and physical distancing guidelines.
Temperatures dropped below freezing on Monday night and the region experienced its second major snowfall event of the season.
BC Housing and PDSCL proposed a new emergency winter shelter at the former Victory Church on Winnipeg Street, which is currently home to a hygiene centre.
The 42-bed facility initially got the cold shoulder from mayor and council at the Oct. 6 council meeting.
Elected officials expressed apprehension about safety, security and operator accountability.
Councillors also noted issues with property crime in the area of the Compass House complex, which is also run by PDSCL, and the negative impact on nearby businesses.
Two weeks later, city council reluctantly approved a temporary use permit.
But that delay, the operator said, is partially to blame for why the new emergency winter beds aren’t open yet.
“Until we had our permit, we weren’t able to get the building department and the fire department to come in and do those inspections,” Laing said.
The facility was supposed to open on Nov. 1.
The society is now working to address deficiencies.
“We are trying to get our contractors to work as fast as they can, but because they are health and safety related, we have really had to delay opening,” he said.
“The push is on to get things open as soon as possible.”
Blake Laven, director of development services with the City of Penticton, said if there’s an extreme weather event, the opening could be fast-tracked.
“We are checking in with BC Housing on a regular basis whether we do get into an emergency situation, we can make the shelter available, but the goal for everybody is to make sure that it’s safe for occupancy,” he said.
The low-barrier shelter will have around-the-clock staffing and security.
People will be able to use drugs inside an overdose prevention room, Laing said, to save lives during the opioid epidemic.
“Just a few weeks ago, we had seven overdoses in one day, so it’s critical.”
Meanwhile, the City of Penticton said it’s working with 100 More Homes Penticton, to secure additional social and supportive housing projects in the city.
“We are seeing our shelters that are at-capacity,”Laven said. “That’s not a situation that we want to be in; shelters are meant for emergencies. We are seeing people living in there for months, 90 days at a time.”
There are an estimated 120-150 homeless people in Penticton at any one time, including people in temporary shelters, living outside and staying on people’s couches and floors, according to the United Way.
More than 65 per cent of those people have been in Penticton for five years or more with the primary reason for not finding suitable housing being complex mental health and substance use problems, it said.
The new emergency winter shelter could open as early as Nov. 16.