Alice Sam, left, Graham Hughes and Lisa George (holding Hughes’ puppy Riot) volunteer at a nighttime ‘pop-up’ warming centre at a city-owned parking lot on Fourth Avenue, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020. The temporary warming shelter included two propane firepits, food, warm drinks, Naloxone and hygiene kits. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

Alice Sam, left, Graham Hughes and Lisa George (holding Hughes’ puppy Riot) volunteer at a nighttime ‘pop-up’ warming centre at a city-owned parking lot on Fourth Avenue, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020. The temporary warming shelter included two propane firepits, food, warm drinks, Naloxone and hygiene kits. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

Trial run for ‘pop-up’ warming centre in Port Alberni

The Grassroots Homelessness Coalition Society is helping Port Alberni’s vulnerable people

A group of volunteers that have been helping Port Alberni’s vulnerable people have formalized their work with the new Grassroots Homelessness Coalition Society. Their first act—beyond filing for official society status—was to operate a “pop-up” warming shelter for three nights last weekend.

The Grassroots Homelessness Coalition, or GHC, is Lisa George, Alice Sam and Leslie Mitchell—the three principles who have been pushing for more services for the city’s hard-to-house residents that aren’t served by the Port Alberni Shelter Society’s facilities.

They received permission for a pilot weekend to set up their warming shelter from 6 p.m., to midnight on city property at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Napier Street. The proviso was that the shelter must be taken down every night. George said they had an answer for every roadblock the city put in front of them. The city agreed a pilot “would enable the parties to learn and assess impacts,” city CAO Tim Pley said.

The pop-up warming centre is the second to begin operation in recent weeks. The Bread of Life has reopened as a warming centre from 12–4 p.m. to bridge the gap between the time Our Home on Eighth closes to clients in the morning and reopens again at dinnertime. The Bread of Life recently extended its days of operation to five days a week.

The Bread of Life warming centre offers people who don’t have a home to go to a place to get in out of the cold, have a warm drink and use a restroom.

The GHC’s warming shelter is temporary: it had to be set up and taken down between 6 p.m. and midnight. It offered COVID-19 compliant seating around two propane fires, warm drinks, individually packaged sandwiches and bowls of chili. Naloxone kits and hygiene packages were also available to anyone who needed them.

George said they are taking names of people coming to the shelter, both for contact tracing as well as to keep track of who is using their service. This was a suggestion from the Victoria Homelessness Coalition advocates, who are providing advice to the GHC.

Pley said safety, liability and potential negative impacts on neighbours were some of the city’s concerns when granting temporary use of their parking lot. “The city recognizes that GHC is volunteer-based and wanting to provide a needed service,” he said. “The city’s goal is to enable that service provision while avoiding potential associated negative impacts.”

George said the GHC will debrief with city officials to see how the shelter went and how much it was used. There were 32 people who stopped by the first night, and in a 45-minute span early on Saturday there were seven who came to warm up and have a meal—not all at the same time. Final numbers were not available before the AV News went to press.

George is hoping the nighttime warming centre will be allowed to continue as long as its services are needed. Pley said the city would need to see insurance coverage in place and a permit too, since it is city land.

“The city would like to receive feedback from neighbours and have a means of ensuring that neighbours continue to not be negatively impacted,” he said.

“The city would like to see GHC work in cooperation with other service providers so that their services and schedules complement the services and schedules of others.”

Alice Sam said the ultimate goal of the society is not to have to operate the warming centre at all, but to have housing for everyone that needs it.

“At this point, the work that Alice, Leslie and Lisa have been able to accomplish is incredible,” said Graham Hughes, who kickstarted the grassroots movement when he started a tent city in front of Our Home on Eighth shelter while running as a candidate for MLA in the Mid Island-Pacific Rim riding.

“At the end of the day, the thing that unifies all of the volunteers…we’ve started to be connected to all of these people. We created a place where people knew people cared about them.”

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