They had cold hands but warm hearts.
When all was said and done on Saturday evening, the annual Coldest Night of the Year fundraiser walk had raised over $47,000 for the Room to Live campaign. Nearly 400 walkers took to the streets of Nelson to demonstrate their commitment to creating affordable housing in our community.
“What hit me was all the families,” Nelson CARES executive director Jenny Robinson told the Star.
“It was heartwarming to see the community making this a family activity, to see all the kids engaging with this, to see the community step up to raise money for housing.”
The Room to Live campaign is a multi-year project spearheaded by Nelson CARES that aims to revitalize Ward St. Place — one of the only buildings that offers affordable housing in the city. Their aim was to raise $690,000, and they’re almost there.
“We gave ourselves three years and our goal is to be done by November of 2017. Now we only have $90,000 left to raise, so we’re starting to feel like we can see the finish line.”
Nelson punched way above its weight compared to other communities raising funds country-wide. Out of 113 communities Nelson was eighth for participation, despite the fact it was competing with much larger cities.
“When you consider the fact we’re competing against Toronto and Ottawa and Vancouver, you almost can’t believe it. We’re constantly awed and surprised by the way we show up when we need to. It’s fantastic.”
During the event, Robinson was moved to see the way social distinctions seemed to disappear as everyone came together for a common purpose.
“You could’ve been a doctor or you could’ve been homeless, but nobody would’ve known because everyone was wearing the same hat,” Robinson said, making reference to the matching toques worn by walkers.
The event began in the parking lot of Wildflower School, and then progressed as walkers either marched two, five or 10 kilometres around the city, ending with a warm community meal at the United Church.
Some were out for over two hours.
“Right around the time they were leaving is when the clients we support would be pitching their tents, and here they were walking through that weather. It was a long, cold walk, and that gave them a long time reflect on what it would be like to sleep outside,” Robinson said.
And some of them already knew firsthand what that’s like.
“We had one tenant from Ward St. Place who has a really strong background in organizing, and he was volunteering with the team. I think it was his way of showing gratitude, and what this means to him.”
She’s seen a huge improvement in his life since they found him a place to live, and now he was aiming to be part of the long-term solution.
“He was there right until the very end of Saturday night, stacking up chairs and helping out. That’s what I love about this event, is it’s so inclusive.”
And she’s grateful that people are beginning to appreciate how important adequate housing is for the health of a community.
“Homelessness is a really isolating experience. You’re isolated from your community and your family, you’re on the fringe,” she said.
“But once you get someone who has been marginalized, their health condition eroded, you put them in housing and it looks like a miracle — but it’s simply housing.”
The tenants she oversees in Ward St. Place have all deeply benefited from their newly renovated suites, but they’re the lucky ones. Unfortunately there hasn’t been a significant investment in affordable housing in decades.
“According to our housing strategy document, we need 200 more units in our community to meet the need, and that was done in 2014,” she said.
“The recent investment from BC Housing is promising, and it gives us hope in the sector, but we still need more.”
The funds raised on Saturday evening will ultimately turn into approximately two and a half rooms at Ward St. Place. But there’s still more work to be done.
“We’ve lost ground in the last few years with fires and gentrification, people being marginalized and the poor being priced out of their homes. It’s been hard to watch,” she said.
“You have to imagine that day when your life falls apart and you lose your housing. You have to think about what that would feel like, and be like. It’s devastating.”
That’s why she’s grateful for the community warmth on proud display that chilly Saturday evening.
“We couldn’t do this without full community engagement, without everyone pitching in. I’m so thankful, because it really does make a huge difference.”