With the first major snowfall of the year this week and temperatures droppng daily, a community effort has come together at the 11th hour to open a warming centre in Grand Forks to serve residents who may be cold this winter.
The warming centre will be located at 7500 Donaldson Drive, in the old Greyhound bus depot building. It will be open 24 hours a day seven days a week through to the spring, said community lead Everett Baker – he stressed it will not be a shelter in the model of the Boundary Emergency and Transition Housing Society.
“[We ] at least need to have a warm place for people to come without the stigma of a shelter,” Baker said. “The warming centre will be open to everyone … they can come for the afternoon, have some tea, coffee, soup, and leave. It gives a warm place for someone to go if needed as the weather gets colder and more inclement.” Baker said he will be functioning as the “community lead” on this project to get it moving, but intends there to be an operating committee that would include community partners, as well as local ministerials.
The warming centre is the result of numerous closed meetings between stakeholders concerned about the implications of having no winter shelter in the Boundary this year. Stakeholders who met to discuss the proposal included a variety of local non-profits (including the Boundary Community Food Bank, of which Baker is the president), health care sector leaders, members of the RCMP and representatives from local government.
Baker, who also owns Grand Forks Funeral Home and ran a close but unsuccessful bid for mayor in October, said he was personally deeply concerned about the implications of not having a place for people to get out of the cold.
“My concern is I don’t want this delayed, the cold weather is coming, we obviously have snow, we don’t want it pushed off any longer,” Baker said. “I believe we could be open next week. I don’t want it to drag on. It is an immediate need, I am afraid that if we don’t do this, there will be people in my morgue that will be freezing to death out there in the community.”
The shelter will operate with a mix of volunteers and paid staff, he said. Ideally, the shelter will be operated by volunteers during the day, with paid staff overnight who can help with any “more difficult cases” the centre may encounter.
Baker said the centre will also offer one warm meal a day. The building does not have a kitchen; however it is expected the modular commercial kitchen unit currently owned by Whispers of Hope will be located on the site to cook that one meal per day. The Boundary Community Food Bank would provide the food to be cooked in the kitchen, and supports the centre in principle, he added.
BETHS, which traditionally operates an extreme weather shelter funded by BC Housing, shuttered earlier this year. At the time, BETHS board member and now Grand Forks mayor Brian Taylor said the society had received indications from BC Housing that the shelter model was irrelevant to Grand Forks.
There are two housing projects currently announced for Grand Forks by BC Housing; however, neither project would provide immediate shelter this winter.
At meetings with housing stakeholders, Mayor Brian Taylor said the need for a winter shelter was immediate and could not be delayed.
“It will be a different model than has run before,” Taylor said.
Funding continues to be a concern for the warming shelter, he said; BC Housing has not yet committed to funding for staff.
“We are going to continue to advocate to BC Housing to come up with funding for staffing, the rest will be donation, in-kind, if we have to go volunteers to start we will,” he said.
Whispers of Hope Benevolent Association will be providing the non-profit infrastructure for the centre, including mechanisms for payroll and tax receipts for donations; however, Baker said they would likely not be involved in the running of the space.
Baker said he is aware of potential concerns from neighbours in the nearby residential areas – but said his first priorities are accountability and transparency.
“Making sure the warming centre is accountable and transparent, to make sure it is operated well, being respectful of neighbours and being a good corporate citizen.”
At the stakeholders meeting, that sentiment was echoed:
“We need to do it right. The eyes of the community are on us,” he said.
Baker said that after some minor work is done to the building, they are hoping to open as soon as possible – certainly before Christmas, and possibly as soon as next week.