Nelson’s Stepping Stones homeless shelter was full throughout November, so it turned 24 people away. How do you turn a homeless person away from the only 24-hour shelter between Kelowna and Calgary in the winter? What do you say to them?
“We do a brief assessment at the door, get their name, look them in the eye, get a sense of where they are at right now. Are they cold, fearful, intoxicated, or stone sober and in shock?” says Mike McGaw of Stepping Stones.
He says they then find out what services the person is already using, whether they are connected with mental health or addictions services, whether they have an income. They might make referrals to the transition home or to other outreach workers in town depending on the situation.
“Sometimes we have to just look them in the eye and say, ‘We’re sorry, we are full and we cannot offer you a place to stay right now,’” McGaw says. “So then we troubleshoot: do they have a couch to stay on, can they get themselves to a community [Trail or Grand Forks where there is an overnight emergency shelter.”
Or they give them a tent, blanket, or sleeping pad. Stepping Stones can’t keep up with the demand for these.
“We never have enough tarps and tents,” says supervisor Marjie Hills, “but not many people part with their tents and we don’t have a budget to purchase them so we are always looking donations of tents and sleeping pads.
“And we give out a lot of food,” says McGaw. “We have ready-to-eat food that we can give someone to take away so sometimes this is as good as it gets. We can at least fill their belly.”
Hills says they have not turned anyone away during the past week of warmer temperatures because demand for the shelter is somewhat weather-dependent.
What the shelter provides
The Stepping Stones shelter is funded by BC Housing and run by Nelson CARES. It can house 17 people, and they can stay for 30 days. After 30 days away they can come back again for a further 30 days. In addition there are two emergency one-night-only beds. There is one staff person for every nine residents.
The shelter provides three meals per day, provided largely by donations from farmers and grocery stores. Also: towels, bedding, laundry services, free donated clothing, swimming passes, bus tickets, coffee cards, and an outreach worker to help find housing.
“Bus tickets is one of the best things we offer,” says Hills, “so people can go out and take care of their business. There is no affordable housing in Nelson so people end up looking in Salmo, Trail, Castlegar.”
“The clients are about 75 per cent male,” says McGaw. “It’s adults only unless a child is with their parent. We have beds for everybody, five rooms where people can sleep, bunkbeds, four beds to a room. The majority have mental illness, addiction, brain injury, fetal alcohol, autism or Asperger’s spectrum, other issues.”
A typical day for staff
“We put out food in the morning,” says McGaw. “People will have needs: to make a long distance phone call, to have us look at their intent to rent form, or some other application they are making. People lose their ID while they are homeless and that is a nightmare of bureaucracy, to get somebody started on that process with no money. Sometimes there are literacy issues or computer literacy issues, so I have walked many people through how to set up an email address.
“We do some support work, some rule enforcement. In any facility there will be rules, built up from experience. As a grassroots [organization] we developed them ourselves. For example, we did not have a rule about no climbing out the window until we needed it. We found people were switching beds and we were getting confused about who was who, whose stuff was whose. Sometimes people take off and leave stuff behind. We do a lot to keep it from being chaotic, keeping stuff in order. We end up doing some crisis counselling in the moment when somebody is have a really hard time.”
“We also store people’s medications,” says Hills. “Those are tracked carefully and handed out to people and signed off on.”
Past clients can come back once a day for coffee, to check their email, and make local phone calls.
The shelter has active relationships with other services in town including nursing students, mental health workers, the fire department, art therapy students, and the police.
“We have a really good relationship with the police,” Hills says.
‘The last month of his life he was not homeless’
The shelter has a feedback form for its residents. Hills says 99 per cent of the comments are positive.
“Some people recently wrote a nice letter, somebody who had been waiting for housing. They never thought they would see themselves in that situation, relocated and back on their feet again. They were happy. We get lots hugs at the door, cards and letters and notes, saying thanks so much and the food was awesome.”
“We have had people thank us for saving their lives,” says McGaw. “They have described going from worthless, where nobody had their back, to feeling like they were invested in the community and the community was invested in them. A 180-degree flip.”
McGaw describes an elderly man who found an apartment after being homeless for a long while, and then died a month later: “The last month of his life he was not homeless.”
“That’s why we do this,” says Hills. “It is very gratifying when you have had success with someone and see them move on really successfully.”
Asked about the biggest challenge in the job, Hills and McGaw resisted talking about their personal challenges. They just wanted to talk about affordable housing.
“People are not the problem,” says McGaw. “Lack of affordable housing is the problem. There is a lot of affluence in this world and some people have none of it, so that discord is the hardest part of it. I believe in harm reduction. We recognize that homelessness exists, that poverty exists, and we try to reduce the harm around it. Instead of being judgemental we want to help people help themselves.”
“Homelessness is an epidemic,” Hills says. “I was recently in Vancouver and have never seen it so bad as it is now. There is not enough housing here that people can afford, but we just keep working at it. We just keep going at it and hoping for the best.”