The overnight shelter on Salt Spring Island got a boost from BC Housing this week, but organizers say it’s only one step toward what it really needs.
The shelter, which provides 30 beds, showers and two meals a day, is open each night starting Nov. 1. Usually, it stays open until March 31 and then closes until the following winter. But now, it will stay open year-round.
Rob Wiltzen, operations manager for Salt Spring Island Community Services, says it’s good news but it’s only a start.
“We have an extremely high homeless rate on Salt Spring Island on a per capita basis. We outshine the rest of the province by far.”
Wiltzen says a 2018 count found 131 homeless people on the island, which means the per capita rate was higher than both Victoria and Vancouver.
What they need, he says, is a shelter that’s open around-the-clock, provides three meals a day, offers a place to store personal belongings and is connected to support services.
BC Housing says the shelter is a temporary solution to solve the housing problem and that the long-term solution is on its way in the form of affordable housing.
“Housing is exactly what Salt Spring needs,” said Heidi Hartman, Vancouver Island’s regional.director.
“We’re excited about this temporary option until the housing comes online.”
That project was announced earlier this year and is supposed to provide 24 rental units in the coming years.
Cold weather shelter space hard to find
Salt Spring isn’t the only community looking for solutions to homelessness. Even on a temporary basis, shelter can prove elusive in island communities.
In Parksville, when a 52-unit supportive housing building opened this summer, it meant the annual cold weather shelter lost its home.
Susanna Newton, the co-chair of the Oceanside Homelessness Task Force, says the community is working to find somewhere eight people can sleep, shower and have dinner and breakfast from Nov. 1 to March 31.
“At this point, we’re still looking at our options,” she said. “Local churches have come together and are giving it consideration, whether that’s something that they can help us out with, and we’re all hopeful that that will come through.”
She says it’s frustrating to have to be looking for a new space.
It’s GoByBike week in B.C. But in Mission, most go by car.
A “pop-up” bike lane along 7th Avenue appears to be doing little to change that, as it was almost deserted Thursday afternoon.
“It’s just a pain,” said Michelle Leggett as she walked her six-year-old daughter Madeline Lutz home from school. “I think I’ve seen four bikers all week, and I’m pretty sure they’re regulars.”
To create the lane, city staff closed one side of the street to parking from Monday to Friday. As a result, the side streets around the high school have been overwhelmed with parents dropping off their kids.
“We’re just too far out here,” said Leggett. “People commute to Vancouver or Burnaby, and they need a car.”
But despite public reluctance, bike lanes are being built in some of B.C.’s most car-centric communities. Earlier this week, the provincial government announced $10 million in cycling infrastructure funding across the province. It will be up to municipalities to change public perception — and tackle the challenges that come along with building a cycling network in the suburbs.
Mission’s pop-up bike lane is part of that. Council has already approved a permanent bike lane along 7th Avenue, and the temporary lane is designed to increase public engagement and gauge public reaction to the idea, said Mission Community Cycling Coalition member Rocky Blondin.
“The design work on a permanent bike lane will be informed by what happens this week,” said Blondin, who is president of the Fraser Valley Mountain Bike Association.
The lane’s usage was “modest” at the start of the week, but seems to be increasing as people realize there is another option to get to school or the recreation centre. It’s the city’s first east-to-west bike lane and its first protected bike lane.
“It takes time for people to start thinking differently,” said Blondin.
There are several challenges to increasing cycling in the Fraser Valley, according to advocates. While the number of bike lanes in cities outside Vancouver is increasing, many communities still lack a comprehensive network that can safely and efficiently take cyclists where they want to go.
“The strength in Vancouver is in a cycling network that’s connected and can get people from Point A to B,” said Erin O’Melinn, executive director of non-profit advocacy group, HUB Cycling. “The Fraser Valley is not yet at that point.”
Unused bike lanes give critics fodder for their fight against more cycling infrastructure during public consultation on the issue, she said.
“But cities need to understand that you can’t build a north-to-south route and expect it to be used. You need east-to-west too. The network is the game-changer.”
Some Fraser Valley cities are also challenged by the fact that their main roads are highways. Many cyclists aren’t comfortable biking on the shoulder of King George Highway or Lougheed Highway. Side roads often end in cul-de-sacs.
In Mission, where up to 70 per cent of residents leave town for work, it’s difficult to increase bicycle commuting when people must travel long distances.
But O’Melinn said progress is being made. With funding contributions from other levels of government, many cities are beginning to create cycling infrastructure, which remains cheap compared to other transportation options.
Surrey, in particular, has made significant strides in connecting its downtown core, she said, although the municipality’s size presents a challenge for linking the entire community.
Abbotsford signalled its intentions to make cycling a priority earlier this year with a new pedestrian and cycling bridge over Highway 1 connecting the University of the Fraser Valley to a main thoroughfare. The bridge is adorned with dozens of recycled aluminum bike wheels.
Elsewhere in the Fraser Valley, progress on bike lanes is “hit and miss,” said University of the Fraser Valley urban geography professor John Belec. “It depends on the interest of each particular council to move forward on it.”
There is also significant backlash from a segment of the population that believes “roads are primarily for cars, and as a public space, cars have priority,” he said.
While councils may not be able to push through a comprehensive bike network all at once, many are beginning to lay the groundwork and put small segments in place.
“It takes courage and energy — and a faith that they will be used,” said Belec.
In Chilliwack, cycling advocates are working to fill in the “gaps on the map,” said David Swankey, co-chair of Cycle Chilliwack. Using a rail corridor that loops through the community, the challenge is to develop clear and safe routes from there. The city is still working to determine what those routes will look like.
Swankey said advocates want to see routes that are accessible and safe for everyone, including seniors and kids on their way to school, which would increase their use.
“It’s an ongoing to process to see how it will roll out in the years to come,” he said.
Earlier this week, the provincial government announced $10 million in funding for cycling infrastructure projects across B.C. Municipalities must apply for the grants, which cover between 50 to 75 per cent of project costs, depending on population.
The BikeBC money helps communities pay for new bikeways, or improve safety and accessibility on existing pathways.
Several cities on the South Coast received funding for 2019-20, including:
• The City of Abbotsford is approved to receive $299,685 for a separated two-way cycle track connecting elementary, middle and high schools to the recreation centre, library and the Discovery Trail.
• The City of Chilliwack is approved to receive $437,263 to extend a separated pathway between Airport Road and Hocking Avenue on the Valley Rail Trail, providing a north-south connection for all ages and abilities.
• The City of North Vancouver is approved to receive $1 million toward the Casano-Loutet cycling and pedestrian bridge over Highway 1.
• The City of Pemberton is approved to receive $7,500 to develop a cycling network plan that addresses active transportation within the community.
• The District of Squamish is approved to receive $210,450 for upgrades to the Dentville section of the Discovery Trail, which will include a separated paved path with lighting.
• The City of Vancouver is approved to receive $150,925 for cycling and pedestrian safety improvements at the 800 Robson Street Permanent Plaza.
• The City of Vancouver is also approved to receive $1 million for upgrades to the downtown bike network.
• The District of West Vancouver is approved to receive $50,700 for separated bike lanes between the districts of West Vancouver and North Vancouver.
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