Grande Prairie drop-in shelter cuts back hours after budget strained by long winter, increased use

A Grande Prairie drop-in shelter, financially over-extended from a long and brutal winter, has had to significantly reduce its spring and summer operating hours.

The cutback comes at a time when the need for services at the St. Lawrence Centre, a daytime shelter that provides meals and a place out of the cold, is higher than ever, said its founder.

Jared Gossen said the centre is open five days per week during the winter period, from Oct. 1 through March 31. During the spring and summer months, from April 1 through Sept. 30, the centre normally drops back to three days per week.

But this year, April 1 came with an announcement that the centre could only afford to open for two days each week.

Gossen said the increased demand over months of bitter cold has drained the centre’s resources, and the reduced hours should help stretch its budget through the spring and summer, he told CBC News on Wednesday.

​”We’ll do what we can, and keep the doors open as long as we can,” Gossen said.

Centre’s use has doubled since 2015

In its fiscal year ending March 31, the St. Lawrence Centre spent $156,000, dividing its budget between winter and summer operations. Funding for the centre comes from the City of Grande Prairie, which contributes $25,000 annually, and donations from businesses, individuals and community groups.

The centre went over budget by about $10,000 this winter. Most of that money went toward additional staff to manage the growing demand for services, Gossen said.

Jared Gossen, founder of the St. Lawrence Centre, says demand for the daytime shelter has nearly doubled since it first opened in 2015. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Since the shelter first opened in 2015, Gossen said the number of people who use it has doubled. This winter, as many as 60 people a day turned to Gossen and his staff for meals and a safe place to escape the cold.

​”All the reasons why we opened St. Lawrence Centre in the first place — as far as giving people a place to call home, daytime shelter, but also decreasing vagrancy in other parts of the city — all of that kind of slips away if we’re not able to keep the doors open.”

Drug problems creating a new clientele

While the shelter was originally meant to give homeless people a warm place during the city’s harsh winters, a spike in drug-related violence and overdose deaths is bringing new clients with new needs, Gossen said.

“It’s so much more than the drop-in centre and overnight program it used to be,” he said.

“This is where people live as they’re waiting for a community housing program to move them through, or as they’re waiting to be connected with the proper resources to help them find success.”

Gossen said the changing nature of the clientele means the St. Lawrence Centre’s services are needed five days a week, all year long.

“Where we could have pulled off being open only three days a week in previous years, things have changed and we need to stay open that full five days,” Gossen said.

Gossen estimated the centre would need an additional $41,000 to open its doors five days a week through the spring and summer period. A $16,000 donation from Grande Prairie’s New Horizon Co-Op grocery store has put a sizeable dent in the amount.

Gossen is hopeful that community fundraising events and donations can make up the remaining $25,000 and keep the centre open.

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