There are at least 65 women in the local area who are considered absolutely homeless or “precariously housed”, according to a winter census completed last year.
As a result, the Cowichan Coalition to Address Homelessness has identified an urgent need for an overnight shelter for women in the community during the winter months.
In a letter to the Municipality of North Cowichan sent as part of efforts to open a winter-weather women’s shelter on University Way, the coalition pointed out that many women will not use the established Warmland shelter, which houses both men and women, due to safety concerns.
“This is consistent with studies done in other communities that have mixed gender shelters, predominantly accessed by men,” the letter from the coalition said.
“This poses a definitive barrier to access, whereby women experiencing homelessness are forced to scramble daily for shelter and are at significant risk of finding themselves in potentially vulnerable and dangerous situations.”
North Cowichan will hold a public meeting on Dec. 5 to discuss whether the municipality will issue a temporary use permit to the Cowichan Women Against Violence Society to use a School District 79 building on University Way that the Handmade Hugs volunteer group has agreed to vacate, as a winter weather women’s shelter.
Other proposed locations for an emergency shelter for women, including the old school building on Cairnsmore Street and one in the old Charles Hoey School in Duncan, have already been rejected largely due to protests from neighbours.
The letter from the coalition said the shelter, if allowed to open, would fill a gap in the community, complement the existing predominantly-male accessed Warmland shelter, be a consistent place for women to find shelter and safety through the winter months, and ultimately, better serve a population group that needs immediate assistance.
“A winter response shelter, specifically, is needed in order to provide the daily predictability and guaranteed safety which would support vulnerable women,” the letter said.
“Women are unlikely to give up even questionable or dangerous living conditions if they do not have the predictability of the shelter being available every night.”
Jane Sterk, former executive director of the Cowichan Women Against Violence Society that would run the shelter if allowed to open, said in a letter to the municipality that the shelter would provide a number of benefits to the community.
Sterk said the shelter would reduce the potential for disruptive behaviour and overuse of services that comes when the homeless are forced to live rough on the streets.
“This can include a reduction in people sleeping in doorways or under covered areas around homes, businesses and buildings,” she said.
“It can also reduce the burden on police and health services that are needed when people get into trouble or have disputes when living on the streets. The shelter users will have a chance to get warm, to dry their belongings and to get clean socks, underwear and clothing, which can reduce the incidence of diseases associated with homelessness.”
Sterk acknowledged that the shelter would not be housing or a solution to homelessness.
“It is a temporary and imperfect solution to an urgent problem that has been identified in the community,” she said.
“Similar shelters in Nanaimo, Victoria and elsewhere have been successful. Despite concerns that this kind of facility would prove to be disruptive to the community and to increase crime and reduce safety, that has not been the experience in other communities.”