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Homeless squeezed out of Richmond's only drop-in centre

New centre appears to be on its way but homeless stuck with no place to go
Left to right, outreach worker Hugh Frieberg, volunteers Dianne Woodhouse, Glenda Jansen and June Humphreys, as well as Rev. John Firmston, have had to close the drop-in centre at St. Alban’s Anglican Church due to lack of funding. The centre saw about 15-20 visits per day, providing services such as bike maintenance, resume writing, computer access, a clothing exchange, monthly haircuts and counselling, among others. Photo by Graeme Wood.

Faced with funding shortfalls and growing problems due to rising demand, Richmond’s only drop-in centre for homeless people has shut its doors at St.Alban Anglican Church, putting the city’s most vulnerable residents at greater risk, according to social services outreach workers and volunteers.

“We’re broke, we’re not accessible for disabled people, and there were issues of security, which rendered this place unsafe,” explained Rev. John Firmston.

Friday’s closure is just one of many recent setbacks for the homeless community in Richmond. For instance, earlier this year, Richmond’s only homeless shelter for men, was told it had to relocate, as the property it leased was put up for sale.

New funds may be found for the drop-in centre, but currently there is no space available. Moreover, the whole issue has become “very political,” according to a number of people involved.

For more than three years, on a shoestring budget largely supported by private donations and volunteer time, the church has provided a place for homeless people to gather and connect with social service resources.

But with not enough money or volunteers to meet the demands, problems began to arise and church members decided it was time to close the Monday to Friday operation. Members will still support a Saturday shower and hot meal program, as well as an emergency extreme weather shelter, however hot meals and other free services for homeless people, will end.

“The drop-in centre was a place that provided a destination for people to come together, grab a hot coffee and some snacks, some computer time — you know, we would address each person’s needs individually and refer them to a proper agency to provide services, almost like a triage function,” explained Firmston, who recently replaced Rev.Margaret Cornish.

The church has tried to find city-owned land to continue its weekday, hot meal program, but with no success.

“We are not getting any support from the city, at all. The city is quite unresponsive. That’s all I can say,” said Firmston.

City of Richmond spokesperson Kim Decker said allocating public spaces requires consideration of all non-profit groups and the community at large.

As for a new centre, the Richmond News has learned a $300,000 grant from the provincial Ministry of Health has been given to Turning Point Recovery Society, which operates two drug recovery houses in Richmond.

Turning Point’s executive director, Brenda Plant, said the money will be used to operate a new centre over the span of three years. The challenge will be to find a new space, ideally in the City Centre area; there is no city-owned space, she said.

“We’re working with Vancouver Coastal Health and Richmond to find an alternative site,” said Plant, who noted the Richmond Homelessness Coalition and the City of Richmond’s Community Services Advisory Committee asked Turning Point to apply for the new funds.

Turning Point will act as a “conduit” for the funding, she added.

At issue is what will happen to a small but dedicated group of social service workers and volunteers at the church.

Plant said they will be welcome at the new centre, which will hopefully operate with help from other social service agencies.

Plant envisions the new centre to be more “structured.”

Firmston said he is hoping drop-in services will be handled in a similar manner in the future. Regardless, he believes the immediate concern is to find a place where Monday and Friday lunches can be served. 

“We want to continue to do that. And when the drop-in centre opens elsewhere we would like to continue to serve meals made here to distribute them there,” he added.

Plant said the new centre will begin operating once a lease is negotiated with a landowner. However, there is no timeline.