Every night, Michael Iverson gets up intermittently to knock the rainwater puddles off the top of his tent. If he forgets, his tent floods.
Iverson’s girlfriend of three years, Debbie Maddox, lives with him in the family-sized tent, which is pitched a few blocks from the Share offices in east Vancouver, where Iverson works for the Talkin’ Trash program. Maddox will soon be working for the program, too.
Maddox struggles with blood clots, and the cold gives her chronic pain. The couple buy a propane cannister every day for their heater, and the expense is adding up. The thought of ice and snow this winter filled them with dread.
But they won’t be living in their tent much longer. On Thursday, Iverson and Maddox will be moving into the new Safe Stay Community in east Vancouver.
The Safe Stay Community is a new shelter program organized by the city of Vancouver and various community organizations. It includes 20 modular “Pallet Shelters” that house two people each. The site will house 40 people and will be operated by Outsiders Inn, a Vancouver-based nonprofit. The prefabricated shelters cost about $7,900 per unit, which adds up to about $160,000 for the site.
There will be trash services, portable toilets and handwashing stations, gathering spaces, and access to resources provided by local agencies. It was built to have the feel of a small neighborhood and is meant to function as transitional housing as people work to resolve their homelessness.
In early December, a camp was removed at the site of the new Safe Stay Shelter at Northeast 51st Circle, displacing some 35 people. People who left were given vouchers promising them a shelter in the Safe Stay Community.
Iverson and Maddox were among those displaced by the removal of the camp, and they are among the 15 to 20 people returning.
Their new home will have a heater, lights, outlets, beds and other accommodations. They will have neighbors, access to resources and people to turn to for help. They will be able to lock their door when they leave, and they will have a place to store large items.
The interim was challenging for the couple, but they are ecstatic to move into their new home.
“I’m just excited that I won’t be waking up to knock big ol’ swimming pools off the top of my tent every night,” Iverson said.
At first, the couple were skeptical. Everything seemed too good to be true. But after they drove by the community and watched the shelters being built, they started to think, maybe this is really happening.
On Tuesday, the couple were invited to view the shelters for the first time in preparation for Thursday’s grand opening. A few of the shelters were open and decorated with Christmas lights, bedding and wreaths.
“Can you believe this?” Maddox asked Iverson as they stepped into one of the shelters for the first time. “These are huge!”
Iverson agreed. “We even got a shelf to put a TV on,” he said.
“I’m just glad we won’t have a propane bill every two days,” Maddox said. “This is the greatest Christmas present ever.”
Outsiders Inn was chosen to oversee the Safe Stay Community in September. Vancouver paid the nonprofit $571,148 to run daily operations.
On Tuesday, Outsiders Inn representatives visited the site to answer questions and ensure everything was ready.
According to Outsiders Inn Executive Director Adam Kravitz, at least two employees will always be present at the site. In the future, he hopes to see shelter residents join that workforce.
To live in the community, people will have to be referred by homeless outreach workers. After a referral is made, Outsiders Inn will make a final decision on whether to accept someone into the community.
Ideally, Kravitz said, people will live in the community for three to six months as they transition into more permanent housing, but there isn’t a limit on how long someone can stay.
“We’re not going to kick anyone out if they need more time or if they have more challenges than other folks,” Kravitz said.
According to Ren Autrey, Outsiders Inn deputy director, the community will function like recovery-based housing models.
“I think a lot of people have this idea of this being tiny homes,” Autrey said. “And really this is an alternative noncongregate shelter environment.”
In other words, life in the community will revolve around routine. Residents will wake up together in the morning. There will be continued peer support and recovery conversations, as well as community gatherings.
“It’s kind of like getting them prepared,” Autrey said. “It’s a first step.”
All the Pallet Shelters are the same, but residents will be encouraged to decorate them, with certain expectations. It will be residents’ responsibility to tend to their shelter.
“That’s a big part of our process at Outsiders Inn,” Autrey said. “We want to model it first, and then encourage them, empower them, to rise up to those challenges.”
According to Kravitz, it will take a few weeks for the community to settle into a routine. But he’s grateful that the shelter is opening when it is. Getting people out of the cold is a priority, he said.
“I know some of the people coming to live here personally,” Kravitz said. “I know that for many of them, if they continued to stay outside this winter, they might not make it.”
He believes that this housing model will work, and that its success will inspire others to follow suit. So far, two similar shelter communities are slated to be opened by the city before next summer.
“This is basically disaster relief,” he said. “We’re just doing the best we can. This is a lifesaving move by the city.”
Kravitz is looking forward to Christmas. Beaches Restaurant & Bar will be providing dinner, and by then, most of the residents will be moved in, just as snow and ice are predicted to fall.
“We’re opening right on time,” he said. “This is going to save lives.”