The owner of a Langley-based trucking company has come up with a creative way to help people who fall through society's cracks under normal circumstances.
Rob Reid, president of Shadow Lines Transportation Group, conceived of the Temporary Homeless Relief Shelter project and runs it in conjunction with a local street ministry with a long history of helping the homeless. The project uses an old 40-foot shipping container to provide up to 16 homeless people with a temporary roof over their heads on any given winter night.
"I see a lot of homeless people," Reid says, "and I've always wanted to do something, like maybe give up Christmas dinner and cook for the poor, something along that line. Then I thought, why not just give them a warm, dry secure place to sleep at night? That would probably be something of more value than anything they could get other than food."
The container-based shelter looks kind of like those "multi-station porta-potties" seen at various venues and features eight separate rooms with bunk beds for up to two people each. It also features reading lights, a handicapped-accessible washroom and a furnace to provide heat and hot water.
"It would have probably been better to have used a new container," Reid admits, "because it wouldn't have the wrinkles and dents, the patina on it. But this way we're using something that already had a life cycle and it's still probably good for another 20, 30 years."
Converting what's essentially a gigantic packing crate into a habitable area - especially since it's such a new concept - turned out to be a big job.
"Our number one concern was that no danger could come to anybody," Reid says, "so we went with hot water heat, which required a hot water furnace. We also went with 12-volt lighting so we don't have to run generators or plug it in."
Reid says the shelter is self sufficient for at least 12 hours, thanks to a bank of batteries and the inverter system, and he estimates its life on a charge could even be stretched to 36 hours.
The doors don't lock, but the shelter is surrounded by a six-foot high fence Reid says sets up in about 15 minutes. There are no in-and-out privileges, Reid says, "so it's not going to be a case where they're going out to get some crack or have ladies of the night selling their wares, using the compound as a flophouse."
The shelter is designed to be delivered every evening, picked up at dawn, pressure washed, disinfected and recharged, and then returned to the compound again the next day. And thanks to the collaboration the NightShift Street Ministries, the shelter and its compound are monitored and staffed by competent and caring people.
MaryAnne Connor, NightShift's founder and president, is delighted with how the project came together. "It happened pretty fast," she says. "When Rob phoned and left a message, I thought it was a prank call. But I Googled Shadow Lines and saw that they had some credibility, so I connected with them and literally was blown away by what I was hearing."
Connor says Reid arranged a tour of the shelter, at which point she said, "We're in. How can we help?"
The volunteer-driven NightShift Street Ministries works with area churches and businesses, as well as individuals who want to help.
"We have a roster of trained people who work with the homeless on a daily basis," Connor says, "so it made sense for us to provide support, management and coordination."
Connor is thrilled by the shelter's unique capacity to give homeless people their own little space, their own privacy. "What really attracted me to this was the fact that it provides respect and dignity to people," she says. "It's very unusual."
The shelter was set up initially on the property of Gateway Baptist Church, about a two minute drive from NightShift's offices. "Before we got it operating," Connor recounts, "I had one of my homeless friends come with me to look at it and he was absolutely overwhelmed - he loved it, said it was like a hotel to him, because it's warm, it has lighting. They thought of everything."
Entry is on a first come, first served basis and Connor says "If someone leaves in the night and someone else comes along and wants a room then they'll register with us and go in once we're sure they understand the rules."
As for how it's decided whether to accommodate one or two people in a room, Connor says it depends on the circumstances.
"When someone's tired because they've been out on the streets and haven't slept, and are being threatened by our cold temperatures, I don't think people are going to be too fussy," she says, though she admits it's definitely roomier when only one of the bunks is used, because "Then you can bring your cart in."
Otherwise the carts stay outside, in the fenced area, where they're still somewhat secure.
Connor doesn't expect any conflicts over shopping carts left outside the actual shelter, citing a kind of 'code of the streets.'
"There's a level of respect," she says. "This is a subculture where they really do honour everyone and help each other out. It's amazing."
She says most of the people who'll use the shelter don't have a shopping cart, anyway, just a knapsack - and a wall-mounted peg inside each unit lets them hang their valuables safely, privately and out of the weather.
The reaction from the neighbours has been mostly positive so far, Connor says.
"I would estimate we've had five to one approval. There's been the odd person who isn't happy with the container being there, and we expected that, but our hope is that the community will embrace what we're doing."
She says the beauty of the shelter is that it's brought in at night and can be picked up the next morning so it isn't always sitting in plain view.
"It's just for the extreme weather," Connor says, "and I'm hoping the community will embrace that. We all have warm beds to sleep in and a furnace to keep us warm and these people don't. It's life and death for them - people are dying - so I hope and pray that we can all just work together and help people less fortunate than us."
Connor has no doubt the Temporary Homeless Relief Shelter will be successful. "It's a beautiful looking shelter," she says. "They've done a very professional job, and I'm very impressed."
Reid says the work of converting the container to a shelter was done in the Shadow Lines shop, though because of the specialized nature of some tasks they had to bring in outside people to, for example, put in the alarms and make the mattresses. "It was really fun," he says of the project.
If the Temporary Homeless Relief Shelter is such a great idea, then why not leave the shelter on-site permanently and service it there?
"If they want to leave it there, that's fine," Reid says, "But the trouble is if you start to leave something you get garbage and (the neighbours) get into an uproar because it turns into a kind of shantytown."
By taking the container away during the daylight hours, however, there's no sign that it was ever there, "so there's not going to be people hanging around, waiting for their room," Reid says. "That's why I designed it: to go in, serve its purpose and get out."
What about using such retrofitted containers as the basis for permanent homeless facilities if land could be found and the "shantytown issues" resolved?
"It would never, ever happen in a million years," Reid says. To him, the actual building of the shelters is the easy part; getting the politicians to give it their blessing is harder.
"It's one of those things," he says regretfully. "I've talked with some municipalities and every individual I've talked to in government says they love the concept, but the minute you put them into a situation where there's 20 of them, someone will shoot it down."
Reid says homelessness is a touchy issue and, while everybody wants to do something, "Like with building bridges and highways, (municipalities) are always 10 years behind. Typically, you end up working with non-profit organizations, most of which have religious connotations to them."
Reid also thinks bureaucrats have an ingrained distrust of entrepreneurs.
"The first thing they'll say is 'What are you looking for?'," he says, "and I'll tell them I'm looking for absolutely nothing. I've built it, I'll maintain it, we've got insurance for it and they have no exposure whatsoever. But that still isn't good enough."
The project has been a learning experience, and not a cheap one.
"This initial (shelter) probably cost in the neighbourhood of $100,000," Reid says. "And our operating costs will probably be around $300 or $400 a day for every day this unit's out there, seven days a week for the winter months."
That cost includes a special, winch-equipped truck Reid commissioned to move the shelter.
"The nice thing about it, though," Reid says, "is that it can handle up to six of these units."
The extra capacity would come in handy if Reid's overall vision for Temporary Homeless Relief Shelters comes to pass.
"I'd love to build more," he says. "I'd like three or four more in Vancouver and two or three in the prairies."
He says that if he can get the current pilot project accepted in Vancouver, he'll have the spring and summer to try getting it okayed in Calgary and Edmonton, where he also has operations.
"If we can get some politicians or some group to take it on," he promises, "I will have units ready for next winter."
That suits NightShift's Connor. "I think this is just the tip of the iceberg," she says. "This is a good temporary solution for the homeless problem, and we hope to partner with Shadow Lines across the country."
Reid would like to see the concept taken below the 49th parallel, too. "The concept is so easy," he says, "and there are so many people with resources in the States who could do something very similar for the homeless." All that's required, it seems, is the will - and the vision - which, right now, appears limited mostly to Reid and his partners at the NightShift Street Ministries.
"I know it's a great concept, and I won't give up on it," Reid says. "It's the right thing to do and I'm willing to back all the costs. We just have to get past the politicians."
Which, given his experience to date, may be easier said than done.