Record numbers at Union Gospel Mission point to surge in city's homeless

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Image: Homeless Shelter / Shutterstock

Record numbers of people seeking shelter at the Union Gospel Mission (UGM) have led to many being turned away, and point to a surging issue ahead of the city’s annual Homeless Count, the UGM says.

The beds at the UGM have been at capacity since the City of Vancouver asked them to open 20 additional beds – normally used in extreme weather conditions – on a nightly basis.

“We weren’t sure what was going to happen because we’d never opened those on a nightly basis. We didn’t know what the demand would be over a period of time,” Jeremy Hunka, Public Relations Specialist at the UGM told Vancity Buzz. “We were asked to open those spaces because it’s clear that demand has been through the roof.”

Over just the last few nights, UGM has had to turn away over 30 people, with 72 currently staying in their regular spaces and another 20 in the emergency overflow.

“It’s definitely concerning. Even with the extra 20 beds we’re still having to turn people away,” says Hunka. “We’ve never seen so many people in our shelter over such a prolonged period of time. That’s unprecedented.”

Hunka says one of the reasons could be tied to the fact that there hasn’t been an extreme weather alert in the last few months. When there’s an extreme weather alert extreme weather beds across the city open up across the city.

“When that’s called our numbers actually deplete, because there’s a number of other beds opening up nearby and some are lower barrier and attract people there,” he says. “Ironically, the mild weather means that we’re seeing a huge surge of people.”

Hunka says other factors can include unemployment rates rising, even in other provinces, which leads to people becoming homeless and seeking shelter in other places. That, on top of housing prices pushing some Vancouverites to the streets, rent increases, low vacancy rates, food prices rising, as well as rampant untreated mental health and substance abuse, is spelling out a dire future for the city’s homeless population.

“It’s really concerning for us to see this unprecedented demand. It’s really heart wrenching when you have close to 100 people in your shelter, and you have to turn people away,” he says. “We try and call around to connect to see what other shelters might have space for these guys, but in some cases we can’t. Other shelters are full.”

Hunka says going forward, if Vancouver is to solve the problem of homelessness, everyone has to be on board.

“We can end homelessness. We know how to do it. We do it in the lives of our guests every week,” he says. “Last year we found housing for 200 people in Vancouver. In January we found housing for 17 people. The need out there is overwhelming. The more Vancouverprioritizes this issue all of us – collectively – can do a lot better, so that along with counting homeless, we’re actually doing a better job of ending homelessness.”

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Shawn O'Hara Shawn is a Staff Writer at Vancity Buzz. He loves writing about news, arts, movies, comedy, and culture. Some would argue Shawn is too old to still play Dungeons & Dragons. Shawn would disagree.

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