A number of non-profit organizations are making a coordinated effort to keep Port Alberni’s vulnerable and homeless people warm during extreme cold weather this month.
The Bread of Life Warming Centre on Third Avenue will be open from noon overnight to 6 a.m. thanks to a partnership between the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC), Kuu-us Crisis Line Society, Salvation Army and Bread of Life. The centre offers warmth, hot coffee, snack packs, a place to use a washroom and grab a nap.
“We are filling a need for a low barrier, overnight place to go,” said Colin Minions, food security officer for the Salvation Army.
The extended hours came out of a conversation with the NTC, whose officials were asking where people could get warm at night during extreme weather. The partnership was borne from that conversation.
Kuu-us Crisis Line Society initially stepped up to staff the warming centre until 6 p.m. Now they are ensuring the centre is available to people living on the street throughout the night. “They’ve been an integral partner in extending the hours,” Minions said. “Without them we wouldn’t have gone to seven days a week from 12 p.m. to 10 p.m., and now extended hours.”
The warming centre was to be open overnight through the Family Day long weekend and as needed for extreme weather, he added. Stakeholders are working on a plan to open the centre on an emergency basis as needed.
John Gomez, coordinator for Quu’asa—an NTC program—said he has seen the need for shelter increase this year, especially through the coronavirus pandemic. Members of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Councils’ mental health services have set up a daytime tent in front of Dry Creek Park on Fourth Avenue, where they have two propane fires going for people who need to warm up. Volunteers from Quu’asa and Teechuktl programs have hot coffee, gloves and hand warmers to hand out to anyone that needs them.
“Our teams met and we made a plan how we were going to respond to the cold weather this week,” harm reduction coordinator Becki Nookemis said. She, Gomez and Lee Lucas were at the park on Thursday morning. They were joined later by some of the NTC’s wellness workers.
Gomez said the warming tent will be up every day until at least Feb. 18, when the cold front is expected to warm up. The two organizations are also part of the partnership keeping the Bread of Life warming centre open; the warming tent fills in the gaps when the centre is closed, and offers an alternative for people who are living on the streets, he said.
The two groups also put on a lunchtime barbecue every second Tuesday in front of the park, providing a warm meal to anyone who needs it. In the interim they have been handing out boxed lunches, Nookemis said.
Lucas said the initiative is all part of the NTC’s commitment to help vulnerable Nuu-chah-nulth members. In 2019 Nuu-chah-nulth leaders mandated that member nations “start looking after our homeless,” he added.
The Port Alberni Shelter Society (PASS) has had its extreme weather program in place since March 2020. The program normally ends in late March when the weather warms up, however BC Housing continued with it under a COVID-19 protocol, PASS executive director Wes Hewitt said. “We never altered our capacity.”
Under the extreme weather capacity, it means 15 extra spaces in the main Our Home on Eighth shelter and 12 spaces in the previous shelter building across the street. Occupancy in the shelter picked up around October, when the weather turned colder, Hewitt said. The overflow beds are running at 95 percent capacity too.
Mayor Sharie Minions hinted in a social media post that an emergency low barrier shelter option is under consideration, but she didn’t release any other details.
Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.