There’s a place for us:

🕔Sep 23, 2009

“Bok choy. Onions. Mushrooms. Bean sprouts?” Pauline scans the produce. “Looks like we have to make one more stop.”

The four of us—Pete pushing the cart, Pauline calling out items and Lucas pulling them off the shelves—are on a bi-weekly grocery shop. We’re collecting items for a few healthy breakfasts and suppers for the five or six guests at Broadway Place Emergency Shelter in downtown Smithers. These days, as the weather gets cold and living outside becomes more difficult, there could well be more. Pauline grabs an extra tin of coffee and a box of tea as we head towards the till.

“Besides the overnight guests, we have about 130 drop-ins a month,” she explains. People come by for a cup of coffee, a shower, a meal—even just a visit. As the weather gets colder, people also drop in for donated gloves, scarves, boots and blankets.”

Specifically serving the most isolated and marginalized members of the community, Broadway Place offers safety, companionship and an accepting, stable environment—deeply humanizing elements that are too often absent from the lives of its guests. Much more than just a bed for the night, Broadway Place has become a source of friendship and guidance for over 160 overnight guests and hundreds more drop-in visitors over the past two years.

A place to stay
Since September 2007, Broadway Place—operated by Smithers Community Services Association and funded by BC Housing—has provided essential and gateway services to anyone in need.

Smithers is a regional hub and service centre for surrounding communities and this is reflected in the shelter’s diverse clientele. Guests include women, children, men, youth and families. Some have been down on their luck for years, some for a lifetime. Others have recently fallen into tough times and just need a couple of days to regroup and get back on their feet. A number of guests come into Smithers from smaller communities to access health care and other services over several days. Without family in town or money for pricey accommodation, Broadway Place makes this access possible.

Pauline Taekema, shelter manager, sees the service as a community responsibility. “We should be a community that looks after all of its members,” she says as we unload the groceries at the till.

A front-line worker with homeless and at-risk community members since 2003, Pauline has been instrumental in making Broadway Place a reality. Prior to the establishment of the shelter, emergency services here included an anonymous crisis hotline and occasional hotel rooms for the night. But without face-to-face contact with callers, support workers were unable to fully assess their needs—sometimes with tragic results.

Additional services were clearly needed and a massive commitment of planning and volunteer hours made it happen. The shelter still isn’t the perfect solution: it doesn’t offer a permanent home to chronically homeless people in the community, for example; supported and transitional housing are still badly needed. But with up to 30 consecutive nights available for guests who show a strong desire to access further resources and find long-term housing, Broadway Place represents significant progress for people struggling through difficult times.

Misplaced concerns?
Running an emergency shelter is a tough row to hoe—and too often for the wrong reasons. Public complaints, false accusations and poor press have fuelled a growing opposition to Broadway Place, and particularly to its downtown location. This past summer, Smithers Town Council called a special joint meeting in which it proposed that the shelter relocate. It cited rising policing costs, impacts to Main Street businesses and public safety among its main concerns.

“In the past two years complaints have definitely increased,” says Smithers Mayor Cress Farrow. “When we get complaints about a situation we have to look into it.”

Pauline disagrees that the shelter is the primary culprit behind many of these concerns. “We shut our doors at 11 pm and open them again at 8:30 am,” she says, “Crime that goes on in the middle of the night has nothing to do with the shelter.” With alcohol, drugs and intoxication prohibited at Broadway Place, guests have a strong incentive to stay sober. If anything, the shelter could well be reducing crime by providing people with the option to come in off the street or out of the bush.

But as the only 24-7 community support service offered in Smithers, Broadway Place is an easy target for complaints. Although people dropping in after-hours can’t get past the heavy locked door into the shelter itself, they do come into the vestibule to request blankets or extra clothes to get them through the night.

Sometimes they have emergency issues that need police attention. Sometimes they’re drunk, at times disorderly. Shelter staff don’t hesitate to call the police in these cases. Fears that this type of influence could unravel the attractive downtown identity that businesses and residents have worked so hard to create certainly aren’t unfounded.

“What’s happened is that we now have a gathering place,” says Farrow. “With a number of services concentrated in the downtown area, we get more people congregating there and there’s no question that this has made the problem worse than it’s ever been. It’s a real challenge. There are no easy answers.”

Debbie Pierre, executive director of the Office of the Wet’suwet’en and one of the participants at the meeting, takes a different viewpoint. “Alcoholism, vandalism—these are things that go on in any town. Closing the shelter won’t make them go away.” She also offers a sage perspective on shelter guests: “All of these people have made contributions to the community. They didn’t plan to be in the situation they’re in.”

Advocates for the shelter argue that relocating the facility away from town would undermine the access to support services it currently provides. Community Futures, Northern Health, counselling services and Ministry offices are all within easy walking distance—an important consideration for people who don’t drive.

“It’s right where it should be,” states Alphonse Gagnon, a hereditary Wet’suwet’en chief and another participant at the meeting. “That’s where the downtown people are—that’s where they’ve always been.”

Rather that an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” approach, Gagnon emphasizes the importance of compassion and tolerance in the broader community. “People need to get used to the shelter and accept it,” he says. “There are always going to be less fortunate people in our community. What we should do is look for ways to create some work for them and help them fit in.”

Pride of place
Back at Broadway Place, Pete and Lucas carry the bags of groceries through the front door. The on-duty staff buzzes us in and we step into a comfortable living room complete with handmade quilts on the couches and chairs. It’s the sort of home that many of the more frequent shelter guests—Pete and Lucas included—had never previously experienced.

“Many of these people don’t have what you and I do,” Pauline says. “They might come from good homes, but more often they’ve never had family support.” She goes on to describe how many of the shelter’s visitors have completely fallen through the cracks. “Often they’re dealing with undiagnosed FASD, brain injuries, schizophrenia. They’ve had no access to the support services that others do.”

The staff at Broadway Place are pragmatic about their work. Sure, in some ways this is a band-aid solution to deeper underlying problems, but that doesn’t negate its importance. At least 10 percent of the guests at Broadway Place have found permanent housing during their stay. Others have found jobs or have had a chance to connect with health and social services they weren’t aware of or were previously unable to access without a phone, address, or that vital bit of extra encouragement or guidance.

Pete, who’s measuring out an afternoon pot of coffee, and was helped into detox by the staff, had a clean and safe place to come back to afterwards, and has been actively supported in staying on the wagon during his drop-in visits since. For chronically homeless people like Pete, the stability offered by the shelter and the occasional relief from daily concerns about the safety and security of his belongings and his person are major positive changes.

“I came here with my pride in my back pocket,” he tells me as he flips the switch on the coffee maker, “and left with more dignity than I had before I came.”