An increase in the Tri-City homeless population has prompted the Hope for Freedom Society to re-launch its cold/wet weather mat program after a three-year hiatus.
Rob Thiessen, the director of the society, said there is demand for the service, which, before it ended, rotated between church basements on a monthly basis from October through March.
“We have seen a need for a long time,” Thiessen said, noting his outreach workers counted 157 homeless people in the Tri-Cities as of the end of August.
The program is expected to operate the same as it did previously.
Volunteers staff the site between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., when 30 mats are provided to homeless people, who are bused to the church from a pre-determined meeting point. There are no ins and outs allowed, and anyone who is intoxicated or in possession of drugs or alcohol is not permitted entry.
Thiessen told The Tri-City News BC Housing approached his organization about re-launching the program, which was not renewed after the opening of a permanent shelter at 3030 Gordon Ave. in Coquitlam in December 2015. He added that while the permanent shelter has been helpful in alleviating some of the housing pressures in the community, demand for places to sleep goes beyond the facility’s 30 emergency beds and 30 transitional beds.
Thiessen also noted that because 3030 Gordon is considered low-barrier, some homeless people, particularly seniors, do not feel comfortable spending the night at the shelter.
“Not all homeless people out there can thrive in that environment,” he said. “We have barriers in our shelter. There is an opportunity to have a peaceful night sleep and be in an environment that is drug free. That is attractive to some people, even those that are addicted.”
Thiessen said he is still working to secure all of the locations but said a spot is lined up in Coquitlam for Oct. 1. A temporary use permit will be considered by Coquitlam council during its Sept. 17 meeting to allow the shelter to operate for up to one month at a time at Eagle Ridge Bible Fellowship, Coquitlam Alliance and Calvary Baptist churches.
Thiessen said he doesn’t anticipate the kind of opposition his organization saw in 2007, when it first introduced the concept of the cold/wet weather mat program to the community. Initially, there was widespread opposition to the proposal, which led to a record-long public hearing in Coquitlam.
This time is different, Thiessen said, because the community has had the chance to see how the program is run and its benefits.
“There is no evidence that the [temporary] shelter is going to have any negative impacts,” he said. “None of the fears occurred.”
Instead, he said residents learned more about the homeless issue, particularly the people who volunteered to help at the shelters.
“A whole whack of people got to come face to face with homeless people and change their minds,” he said.