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On Dec. 10, as heavy winter rains turn Nanaimo’s Albert Street into a small river, more than 30 individuals hunker under two white event tents set up on the green space at the corner of Victoria Crescent and Albert Street.
Organizers begin packing up the makeshift daytime warming shelter and turn off the propane tanks to let them cool. While some people shuffle together possessions and wrap layers of clothing and blankets around them, others collect unclaimed resources, like furniture used for seating under the tents. The distinctions between client and staff blend together as folks step out from under the tents and into the rain, some helping load two waiting vehicles.
At the center of it all, RISEBRIDGE executive director Jovonne Johnson conducts where items need to go then pivots to provide answers and reassurance to clients. As Friday nightlife picks up and evening traffic builds, she says they’ve been advised by Nanaimo city bylaw to close their warming tent for the evening as a way to keep staff, clients, and volunteers safe from local nightlife. The time is 6:30 p.m, and St. Peter’s cold weather shelter won’t be open until 10 p.m.
That day, RISEBRIDGE had been operating their emergency warming tent for four days, a response to community need after the Society for Equity, Inclusion and Advocacy’s (SEIA) warming centre was closed down indefinitely so RCMP could investigate a possible misappropriation of SEIA funds.
By Dec. 16, just six days later, RISEBRIDGE opened an indoor emergency warming centre downtown, filling a critical gap in essential infrastructure for the hundreds of people in Nanaimo living without a safe, warm place to rest during the day.
‘They’re constantly being dispersed’
That left SEIA with the only warming shelter during daytime hours in the central Vancouver Island area. The closing of its doors left a void of resources that RISEBRIDGE rushed to fill.
The triage approach deviates from RISEBRIDGE’s core focus of facilitating community spaces for peer mentorship and connection for BIPOC folks, youth, LGBTQ2S+, and new parents. But Johnson says the need to pivot focus was more than evident.
“Outreach teams are spending upwards to hours trying to find individuals to be able to offer them support, because they’re constantly being dispersed. Whereas if we have a location where we know that our street entrenched community are there, then it’s much quicker, much easier to facilitate a safety plan and a coordinated response program and services to be able to access them.”
The lack of accessible day shelters throughout the Nanaimo region was enough motivation for the organization to erect tents close to the temporarily shuttered SEIA warming centre location along with harm reduction and warming supplies.
Social media posts asked community members for donations of hand warmers, blankets, winter gear, tarps and tents, and local leaders jumped in to fulfill the requests. And as word spread, displaced individuals made their way to the shelter provided by the organization.
In keeping with their commitment to accessible and low-barrier support, the makeshift warming centre was wheelchair and walker accessible, those who had recently used substances were not turned away, and RISEBRIDGE staff and volunteers worked to limit cultural barriers.
According to Nanaimo’s 2020 point-in-time homeless count, one-third of people surveyed identified themselves as First Nations, Métis or having Indigenous ancestry, when these communities represent just six per cent of Nanaimo’s population.
Johnson notes how the current religious focus of the Salvation Army’s New Hope Centre and St. Peter’s can keep many people who are unhoused from accessing the supports they need.
“Let’s talk about the cultural social climate right now,” she mentions, referring to the confirmation of remains of children on the grounds of former residential “schools” and the abuses that took place at those institutions.
“You know, when most of our street entrenched are Indigenous or BIPOC community members, we don’t have a trust in church spaces. So why would we feel comfortable sleeping in, let’s say, a house of God?”
As RISEBRIDGE worked to remove as many barriers as possible for their services, Johnson learned how substance use restrictions can also exclude people in need.
“We were talking to this one gentleman, and he started crying and said that he got to sleep at our fire pit under the tent for five hours. I was checking on him just to ensure that he was okay,” says Johnson. “And he totally was, he was just in a very deep nap. He said it was the safest that he’s felt in months.”
As the future of reopening SEIA’s warming centre remains unclear, Johnson notes that the expectations placed on non-profit organizations is too much given the current need in Nanaimo.
“The loss of one organization like that should not have created this much of a void. Why do we only have one day warming shelter like this? Why is the city not doing more to provide extended shelter hours and more locations? People aren’t going to just disappear if you ignore the problem. Displacing them somewhere else only moves the problem to an area with potentially less accessible resources.”
When asked what the city might do to help fill the gaps left by the closure of SEIA and the efforts being made by RISEBRIDGE, Bill Corsan, director of community development, stated in an email: “The City is aware that a group has stepped forward to provide support as a result of the closure of SEIA. The City was not consulted prior to their opening the temporary service but are aware and monitoring at this time. City is aware that other nonprofit groups are looking at how best to fill the void created by the sudden closure of SEIA.”
As various organizations work to patchwork together additional supports, Johnson points out that a stable place to facilitate relationship-building is imperative.
“There’s a massive mistrust of the system. We know so many of our street entrenched distrust those types of systems and supports due to past abuse. You need time to build relationship and trust so they’ll access what you provide. And how much of that trust, those relationships, were jeopardized with the closing of SEIA’s doors? No, we can’t just offer something temporary and then shuffle them to the next organization that can support them temporarily. You need places where they know they can reliably go. Where it is safe.”
While the warming tent was a temporary measure that pulled from RISEBRIDGE’s resources and programs, the organization quickly moved to lease space downtown to open a more permanent indoor warming center using the connections they’ve built.
The new warming centre, dubbed Warmreach, opened Dec. 16 and is able to provide a dry place to rest with access to resources for 28 individuals at a time during mornings and afternoons.
According to Nanaimo’s most recent homeless count, about 62 per cent of the estimated 600 people who are unhoused in the region are “sleeping rough,” meaning they are living in public spaces or makeshift shelters that are not meant for human habitation.
SEIA’s warming center was able to provide space for about 15 people. Even with both SEIA and RISEBRIDGE’s warming centers in operation, there are hundreds of people in Nanaimo without access to a warm place to rest during the day.
It’s a point Johnson comes back to. “We’re not in competition with anyone, that’s not our goal. We need to be working together because people’s lives are on the line.”