There's a bunk bed, a window and a small closet with a lone, weather-beaten jacket hanging inside. On the floor sit two, half-full garbage bags stuffed with clothes.
It's not a lot to look at. But the room and six others like it mark a giant step for the community, says Maureen Mackell, executive director of Squamish Helping Hands Society.
“I feel like now we can really start to do the work we set out to do,” Mackell says. “I struggled with keeping people just spinning their wheels.”
Last month, the non-profit society serving Squamish's estimated 200 homeless people opened the doors to the community's first transition house. The building previously housed people with mental disabilities. Now it provides up to 18-month stays for up to six people piecing together their lives. They're backed by staff members who help the clients with challenges such as mental illness and addiction.
It's all about building the bridge toward independent living, Mackell says.
The house presents untapped opportunities, she says, sitting amid boxes of unpacked folders in her soon-to-be office. Currently in the midst of a rezoning application with the District of Squamish, the organization hopes to move the sleeping portion of the town's homeless shelter into the house on Wilson Crescent. That would leave the old space free for meals and more daytime programming and would get people off the shelter's current three-inch mats and into beds, Mackell says.
“Once we get the sleeping portion of the emergency service over here, then staff are over here too and we save wages,” she adds, noting the Dentville facility will only open for the emergency service at night and will always be staffed.
Not all of Squamish is putting out the welcome mat. Some neighbours are anxious the facility will increase crime. It's difficult to discuss, neighbour Cliff Donovan told The Chief last summer. Donovan, who says he was reluctant to speak out of fear of appearing uncaring, says he's not alone in questioning the facility's location. It's approximately three blocks away from Howe Sound Secondary School and just up the street from Squamish Elementary School.
“I am not saying that these are all bad people. Sure, some of them are down on their luck and just need a couple of meals, and are honest, good people,” he wrote in a letter to The Chief. “However, I am worried about drug users near children who are walking to and from school, and those with serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, who may not be aware of their actions.”
Residents will voice their concerns at the municipal rezoning hearing, Wilson Crescent resident Rick King says. A date for the application's appearance in council chambers has not yet been set.
“We will have our say,” King says.
The tension of introducing a transitional house into a residential neighbourhood is nothing new. Shayne Williams knows it first-hand. As executive director of the program Keys: Housing and Health Solutions, which has housed 2,000 people throughout the Lower Mainland since 2009, he's been through several facility openings.
The latest was a transitional house in Surrey North. When the society went door-knocking, Williams heard similar anxieties to those voiced in Squamish — worries about drug use, proximity to children and crime.
But what happened was quite the opposite, Williams says. With 24-hour staffing and a good relationship with police, the house made the neighbourhood safer, he said, noting its clients even aided officers in solving a crime that took place next door.
A street-sweeping social club kicked into gear, pooling clients and residents together as they gathered garbage, tended gardens and repaired general wear and tear around the area.
“[The transitional house] residents were looking for an opportunity to give back to the community, so they became a strong member of the community,” Williams says. “That is really the goal.”
Over the past decade, the approach to dealing with homelessness has flipped a 180. Spawned in New York City in the early 1990s, social programs that once aimed to address people's problems — from addiction to health issues — before housing them now looks at housing before tackling people's demons.
In hindsight, it seems like common sense, Jim Frankish admits, but it's a movement that's reshaping services worldwide.
“By stabilizing people, they are probably going to be less of a problem than if they're out wandering the streets,” says Frankish, a UBC professor of public health and board member for the Lookout Homeless Society. Statistics have proven they also have a better chance of recovery, he says.
A successful program must be backed by a good staff-to-tenant ratio, Frankish says. Police should include the facility as part of their routine patrols and the facility's clients can engage themselves with neighbourhood activities.
It's equally important to enlist the community in dispelling erroneous mythology, Frankish noted. The homeless are not adventurers, people who choose to be on the streets, nor are they dangerous, sexual predators, Frankish says.
“My experience is that [transitional housing] can be done and it can be done well,” Frankish says. “A lot of these folks are quiet and gentle.”
During dinner at Helping Hands' downtown shelter, Bob — who requested his real name not be used — points to people hungrily enjoying their pasta. They're the ones who will benefit from the transitional home, the 30-something-year-old says, gesturing at an elderly woman and man who have called the shelter home for at least a year.
Although the downtown shelter serves an essential role, it's not ideal, Bob says. Once plates are scraped clean, the tables are pushed aside and sleeping mats laid out. The kitchen light stays on and earplugs are handed out in an attempt to buffer snoring. There's no gender-specific sleeping arrangements as women sleep alongside the men. And there's no guarantee anyone will have a spot the following night.
The lack of a good night's sleep and instability that flows into the next day serve as giant obstacles in the paths of people already facing multiple hurdles, Bob says. Many of the shelter's clients are stuck in limbo, scraping by to obtain what most take for granted — a bed and food.
“It is very stressful to be homeless,” he said. “[The transition] house is really needed.”
Back on Wilson Crescent, Mackell walks into a vast room that will serve as the lounge. She can't stop smiling. The seemingly empty space has filled a dream she's had since she started working with Squamish's homeless three years ago.
“We are talking about basic needs,” Mackell says. “I think belonging and sense of community are right up there too.”