Pop-up warming centre aims to fill gaps for Port Alberni’s homeless

Port Alberni, BC

Members of the Alberni Valley’s Grassroots Homelessness Coalition (GHC), now a registered society, are getting closer to providing a more permanent mobile warming centre for those experiencing homelessness.

Lisa George, co-founder of the GHC, said the group is currently working on getting a permit through the City of Port Alberni for a License to Occupy City Lands. In late December the group was granted permission from the city to operate a pop-up warming centre for a three-day trial run. Both George and the city said the trial run was successful and plans to continue the service.

“[The city] gave us the go ahead that they would give us a seven-day-a-week permit and we could actually be mobile or pop up on multiple different sites that the city owns,” George said. “The city has suggested a bunch of community grants and supplied us a long list of sites to go and look at. We’re in the permitting process right now. Things are moving forward.”

During the trial run, the GHC set up tents on a Fourth Avenue lot next to the Port Alberni Friendship Centre. They had a propane fire pit for heat and offered people warm clothing items and food, all while following COVID restrictions. George said one location being looked at for the pop-up warming centre is an area behind Walmart known to have people camping.

George said the hours of operation for the pop-up warming centre are still being planned, but they would most likely work around what the Bread of Life and KUU-US are already offering, with the warming centre on Third Avenue in the old Cornerstones thrift store.

She said the GHC is looking into providing shelter on days that the Bread of Life isn’t open late. Currently the soup kitchen is open until 10 p.m. Thursday to Saturday.

“We’re planning on how to make it something that is consistent and fills gaps that other services aren’t doing,” said George. “If those services are there…that frees us up to see what the next need is. We could put more hours into outreach or harm reductions supplies.”

George said the GHC would like to see their pop-up warming centre operate until at least spring, but that the society hopes to continue offering services to those in need throughout the summer months as well.

“Homelessness doesn’t go away,” George said.

Tim Pley, City of Port Alberni CAO, confirmed the city is working with the Grassroots Homelessness Coalition to enable their vision of providing pop-up warming centre services on city-owned lands.

“The city has provided GHC with a list and details regarding a number of potential sites,” Pley said. “GHC is reviewing those locations.”

Pley said serving a community’s homeless and under-housed citizens is a complex issue that requires multiple agencies and service delivery models to ensure that the needs of all are met and that “the pop-up model appears to include an aspect of outreach work, serving people where they are and where they are comfortable, which appears to be an important aspect.”

The GHC is always looking for more volunteers to help with outreach and the pop-up warming centre. George suggests those interested in volunteering should reach out through their Facebook page.

George added that the city recently provided the society with $1,500 in compensation for property ruined or damaged after campers were evicted from a makeshift camp at Roger Creek Park.

In November of last year, homeless individuals set up a camp in a gazebo at the city-owned park after being evicted from camping on a lot next to the Port Alberni Shelter (Our Home on Eighth). After bylaw issued verbal warnings for the campers to pack their stuff and leave the park, city officials went to the gazebo to evict anyone still at the site. The city ended up removing all belongings remaining at the gazebo when individuals fled.

“They offered us $1,500 for lost damages and we gave them a counter bill that came up over $3,000 once we went back and looked over all the photos and stuff that was not salvageable. They said they would only provide $1,500,” George said. “I’m going to take the $1,500 and we can at least give some funds back to our campers who lost every stitch of personal items.”

Pley confirmed the city compensated the GHC $1,500.

For the Bread of Life and KUU-US, working together to offer those in need a safe place to warm up and have something to eat has been an important aspect in serving the community’s homeless population.

The two groups formed a working relationship back in June 2020 to collaborate on distributing COVID-safe hygiene and sanitization kits as well as hot meals from the Salvation Army food truck.

“It made sense to continue that partnership and combine services once again for the Warming Centre,” said KUU-US executive director Angel Graitson. “In the opening of the Warming Centre, they only had the capacity to remain open a few days a week and short hours of service. KUU-US has provided four outreach workers, which enabled the Warming Centre to extend their hours and days of service.”

The Warming Centre hours are currently Sunday to Wednesday 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Thursday to Saturday 12 p.m. to 10 p.m.

“The average amount of people served daily is between 15 to 25 people and it continues to grow as it becomes more well-known,” Graitson said. “These patrons have no alternative but to live on the streets and live in unsafe conditions due to the lack of housing in Port Alberni. KUU-US will always be willing to do what we can to set a precedence that shows collaboration with other organizations is part of the solution.”

Graitson said KUU-US has donated a TV, a small fridge and distributes snacks in addition to the supplies and services already provided by the Bread of Life and Salvation Army.

This service is needed to provide a safe and comfortable place for people to be warm, fed and have compassionate interaction with people who are genuine and want to provide comfort to those in need,” Graitson said.

Originally, the Warming Centre was to be operational for the colder months of January and February, but Graitson said there will be discussion about the longevity of the centre and whether or not to remain open after the cold months are over.

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