3030 Gordon Ave., built with a purpose

The year-old facility that was built to address homelessness in the Tri-Cities area is a template that Maple Ridge

Associate director Sean Spear in a kitchen unit at the transitional housing apartments at 3030 Gordon in Coquitlam.

Associate director Sean Spear in a kitchen unit at the transitional housing apartments at 3030 Gordon in Coquitlam.

Coquitlam did not embrace 3030 Gordon with open arms.

The year-old facility that was built to address homelessness in the Tri-Cities area is a template that Maple Ridge is considering for its homeless shelter and housing complex.

It’s the newest purpose-built shelter in the province. Maple Ridge politicians and B.C. Housing officials toured it on Thursday.

In Maple Ridge, B.C. Housing has already abandoned one proposed housing location, at the Quality Inn after public opposition, including a large a rally.

The proposed new site on the Lougheed Highway is also being criticized by neighbouring businesses and others, particularly on social media, who oppose a shelter.

Sandy Burpee can look back on a similar situation in his city. He is the co-chair of the Tri-Cities Homelessness and Housing Task Group, which advocated for the 3030 facility. It includes 30 shelter beds and 30 apartments for transitional housing.

In 2006, Burpee headed a community group that saw a growing crisis of homelessness. He said it was nothing like the Cliff Avenue camp in Maple Ridge, but homeless population in the Tri-Cities was larger than thought.

In 2009, the city offered land at the site near the corner of Lougheed and Westwood Street in Coquitlam. The plan encountered strong pushback from the local neighbourhood. He characterized some of the opposition as “mean-spirited and aggressive.”

One of the most contentious city issues in recent memory, a 2010 public hearing for the property rezoning saw 75 speakers, both for and against the housing project. The meeting lasted until approximately 2:30 a.m.

In terms of servicing the homeless population as intended, the new facility is a success. The number of clients to be served was based on local homeless counts, and coincidentally corresponded to the address, 3030 Gordon Avenue. The place is always busy.

“The shelter has been full since was started,” said Sean Spear, associate director of RainCity Housing, which operates the building, as well as the temporary homeless shelter in downtown Maple Ridge.

“We have turn-aways every day,” he said of 3030.

Nobody under 19 is permitted to stay there, and when a young people come to the site, managers work with RCMP to find them housing.

The Gordon facility generally works with 60 people at a time. But in extreme weather, it takes in an additional 30. The extreme weather facilities are 10 bunks and 10 lockers in large rooms.

The shelter area has private rooms, 20 for men and 10 for women, but they have just a bed, desk, sink and shared washroom facilities. Residents get three meals a day.

The intent is for residents to stay there about a month, as they stabilize their personal situations. Some of the stays are longer.

In first seven months, the 30 rooms have seen 124 different people.

Most of those, 102, where from the Tri-Cities community.

The transitional beds are small bachelor apartments with their own bathrooms, full kitchen suites, single beds and a window. The style is institutional, but residents can add family pictures and their own personalized decor.

“They make it their own,” said Spear.

There are no meals provided. These units are more independent, and preparing their own meals is the kind of basic life skill that residents need to demonstrate.

The goal is to transition to a drug-free lifestyle. Residents get medication, clinical supports from Fraser Health, and regular meetings with staff. They connect to the resources they need.

“A lot of what we do is get people connected to community resources,” said Spear.

The intended maximum stay is two years.

“Not everybody takes the entire time, but many do,” said Spear, based on RainCity’s experiences in other sites.

The facility is low-barrier, meaning what residents do in the privacy of their own rooms is their business. But the front door access is controlled, and those allowed in are residents and approved guests, such as family members and service providers.

In the back of the modern, four-storey building is a garden with trees, bird feeders, picnic tables and chairs.

A man of perhaps 70 with a bushy white beard, big shades, hat, and not a single matching article of clothing meets with a peer who looks about the same age, if less colourful. They sit in the sun in Adirondack chairs and chat. A younger man tries to juggle a soccer ball.

“I always introduce this as the nicest one [homeless facility] in the world,” said Sue Noga.

She is the housing consultant for the high-risk health population in Fraser Health – a position created about a year ago.

There are computer work stations, a cafeteria and a TV lounge.

In another room, volunteers go through donated clothing and leave it on hangars. Nearby is a bed bug sauna that kills the pests before they can get established at 3030 Gordon.

RainCity staff strive to connect with the homeless.

Of the 29 people living in transitional housing, 26 first stayed in the shelter at 3030 Gordon.

“It’s all about bringing people inside and starting relationships,” said Bill Briscall, of RainCity. “And if you don’t bring them inside, there’s no relationships.”

Of the 124 people who stayed at the shelter from its December opening until a report in July, almost half (61) had been homeless for less than a year, while 34 were homeless for five years or longer.

After they left the shelter, 42 were connected to recovery programs, 26 went into transitional housing and 12 went into detox.

A new facility in Maple Ridge will not happen quickly. Spear said the building would cost in the $10 million to $11 million range for construction, and 3030 Gordon took about 14 months to build.

Asked what he thinks about the site in Maple Ridge, Spear said the proximity to the hospital is an asset, and it is not too far from other areas where the city’s homeless have been staying – the Salvation Army, Cliff Avenue and the temporary shelter.

All sites will have neighbour issues, he said.

He said Tri-Cities was able to build a homeless facility in the face of opposition.

“There was a ton of political will, with a vision in sight,” said Spear.

If Maple Ridge council cannot approve a rezoning for the homeless facility, an alternative housing option would be a scattered sites approach – individual apartments with supports.

The challenge, though, he said, is that model relies on having readily available affordable rentals. Also, those units should be in a variety of locations throughout the community – so not all of a city’s hard-to-house residents are put in the same building.

“There’s alternatives. But with a purpose-built facility, you can build community – supports and friends who have gone through a similar thing.”

It fosters a feeling of acceptance and belonging, where people who have been living on the street do not feel judged, he said.