Archbishop J. Michael Miller brings prayers to the Catholic Charities Men’s Hostel just before Christmas. “It’s really a beautify ministry that you are carrying out,” he told shelter workers. The 108 beds at the shelter are filled every night of the year. Nicholas Elbers

Homeless find no room at the inn

By  Nicholas Elbers, Canadian Catholic News
  • January 3, 2024

VANCOUVER -- For many of the downtrodden who find themselves filling the 108 beds each night at Vancouver’s Catholic Charities Men’s Shelter, it’s a devastating cycle that an ever-worsening economy just won’t let them exit.

The shelter can only provide a temporary home for 90 days before guests must move on. For Operating Manager Solomon Atta, the most challenging part of his job is asking homeless men to leave when the 90 days are up.

Many of the men make a circuit of local shelters, staying for the maximum amount of time before moving on to the next place that will have them. Eventually, they can return to the Catholic Charities shelter. It’s a cycle that some men have continued for over a decade, said Solomon.

Staff paint a grim picture that shows the state of homelessness in Vancouver — and elsewhere in post-pandemic Canada — and the essential role the shelter plays in the worsening economy. As the elderly are finding it increasingly difficult to survive on a fixed income, many end up homeless after the death of a spouse removes half their fixed income.

Recuperative Care Manager Thiago Camargo said the 108-bed shelter is operating at capacity every night, with the average age of residents around 51 — a number that increases every year.

The shelter, next to St. Paul’s Hospital, is unique in the Lower Mainland because its third floor provides 26 respite beds for high-risk patients who need a place to recover from surgeries or other significant health complications.

Unlike the other guests, third-floor residents are not required to leave the shelter during the day. Although the respite floor isn’t a medical space, it provides the men with a stable environment and meals while staff help them with basic human and health needs like medication and appointment reminders. After they’re discharged, the shelter finds them stable housing, for example, retirement housing in the case of the elderly.

Referrals for respite beds come from local hospitals, who remain connected with the men while they stay at the shelter. It’s up to Camargo to determine if the shelter will be suitable for their needs.

Although most referrals come from St. Paul’s or Vancouver General Hospital, an increasing number have been coming from the Fraser Valley as news of the shelter’s service spreads. There are an estimated 2,000 shelter beds across the Lower Mainland, which Camargo estimates is 3,000 short of what’s needed. 

Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller was a special guest at the shelter just before Christmas. He brought with him a gift they could use: a Christmas blessing. Gathering in prayer with employees, Miller offered his appreciation and encouragement for their work.

“We thank you all for being God’s instruments (at the shelter),” he said. “It’s really a beautiful ministry that you are carrying out. (The men) need your smiles and your compassion.”

After wishing them a “blessed and wonderful” Christmas season, the Archbishop toured the facility with members of the management team, who described the operations at the Comox Street facility.

A perennial problem has been employee turnover. With clients who can be difficult and hours that are challenging, burnout is high among its 40 employees. The shelter is currently hiring for several positions, including a general manager.

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