When the call went out, the Castlegar warming centre got the volunteers it needed. Left to right: Ann Marie Smith, Bev Williams, Val Townsend, Deb Soroko, Ray Griffith, Patrick Merle, Lisa K, Sharon Tangen, and Deb McIntosh. Photo submitted

Castlegar warming centre closes for season, many lessons learned

The community responded incredibly to calls for help; government, not so much

As a person living without a home, Ed says Castlegar’s warming shelter came at a good time for him this year.

“It got too cold this year. I’ve been sleeping in my car for two winters now, this is my third winter, but it just got to be a little too much,” he says. “I’m getting on a little in age, and though I was wearing enough clothes for the temperatures, I find it’s changed a bit for me.

Ed was one of about a dozen local people who used the warming shelter since it opened in early December. That’s when local activists, recognizing a crisis being faced by the area’s homeless citizens, decided to take action and set up warm beds for the coldest nights of the year.

“I went maybe nine, 10 times,” says Ed. “It was pretty important for me. I would have had to scrape up money for a hotel room, and I didn’t have the money. So it kind of appeared in the nick of time for me.

“I would have been darn cold otherwise,” he says. “It’s very much appreciated.”

In all, about 160 “overnight sleeps” were provided over the course of 70 nights the shelter — located in the hall of St. David’s Anglican Church — was open, said organizer Deb McIntosh.

McIntosh says the shelter wouldn’t have worked without the dedication of about 20 or so volunteers, who gave about 1,600 hours of volunteer time over the winter.

“People always step up in this community, they always do,” she says. “It was different this time. They see people as people, not as homeless, but as individuals. And that was the difference.”

For volunteer Ann-Marie Smith, it was a unique experience.

“It was absolutely very positive. It was very eye-opening as to the type of people coming in. They were kind, generous, helpful, weren’t wanting to be catered to. They just wanted a place to be and a sense of community.”

She said the experience made her question her assumptions about people.

“I went in with some prejudices, that there was a certain kind of clientele that was going to be at the shelter,” she says. “And I was very happily surprised they were people who just really needed help, they were just really great people, very respectful. I think I am a better person for having to get to know them.”

Community support

McIntosh says it cost about $1,000 to keep the project open for the three months, with support coming from St. David’s Anglican, the local United Church, the Castlegar Food Bank, Red Cross, and dozens of individual supporters.

“The community really came forward. They donated blankets and sleeping bags and pillows, hygiene products, mittens and gloves. There was not one thing we asked for we didn’t get,” says McIntosh. “They were dropping off baking every night, and gorgeous, fresh meals, made with love that they delivered. It just kept coming and coming.”

But while it was a success — McIntosh points to a lack of complaints about the operation from neighbours or local businesses — she says it became clear the shelter volunteers were working on their own. When they needed support — from everyone from social services to the justice system to mental health advocates — it just wasn’t there.

“It’s given us a really good look into the system and how it doesn’t work for people,” she says. “The systems in place that are supposed to help people didn’t work. It falls off the rails. Between 8:30 and 4:30 they can maybe help, but after that everybody is on their own. And that’s really sad, because there are some really hurting people out there who can use some help.”

The shelter had to turn away one or two people a couple of times for various issues, but it was rare, she says.

“Although we wanted to help everybody, we were pretty limited. Because we’re not counsellors, we’re not social workers. We’re not outreach workers. We’re just volunteers who wanted to make sure everyone is warm and safe.”

McIntosh says the number of people seeking the service declined as the weather improved, and when the last person coming in for shelter was ready to move on, it was time to call it a day.

More services,

housing

She says it’s now time to turn to lobbying the powers-that-be.

“So now I think we continue on with our advocacy to get more social housing in the Castlegar area,” she says. “Hopefully a continuum of housing can be looked at. But social housing is really important. If you want to mitigate homelessness, people on the streets, drug use, and all that stuff, you have to put them in a safe place.

“So hopefully we can convince levels of government that there’s a need for social housing, and we can get more outreach on the streets.”

And McIntosh says she’s learned a lot from the project, especially about the people who come seeking help.

“They’re not looking for handouts. They want to be dry when it’s raining, warm when it’s cold, and they want to get out of the sun when it’s too hot. Like all of us.”

McIntosh says she’s proud of how the warming centre worked.

“The time was right, and it was the right thing to do. And we would open again if there is no other alternative,” she says. “In a heartbeat.”

For Ed, it’s back to living in his car — but in some ways it’s something he’s looking forward to.

“The weather’s nice, the air is fresher. All this time outside — it’s kind of strange, but it goes this way — I feel freer,” he says. “It’s good when I can get outside and I’m not worried about freezing solid the next morning. Last night I slept outside, and I’m prepared for that as the temperatures rise a bit. “

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