A Step to a Better Future – Nanaimo's Warming Centres Pt.1
Two warming centres opened in Nanaimo on January 18, 2021, with support from United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island, and the Government of Canada’s Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy.
Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., they provide a place for our unsheltered neighbours to rest, to stay warm, have a bite to eat, charge their phones and be safe. Some have wondered if the warming centres offer only short-term benefit, helping people to better pass their day, but that’s it. In talking with the workers at the 285 Prideaux warming centre, and those who regularly use the warming centre at 489 Wallace, we’ve learned that these centres offer so much more.
It’s a Thursday morning at 285 Prideaux, where the 7-10 Club operates one of Nanaimo’s two warming centres.
Breakfast is being handed out to a handful of people through an opening in a clear plastic barrier in the doorway. It’s calm out front. The center will be open in a few minutes.
A security guard walks the sidewalk.
Inside, four or five people are pouring coffee and tea to hand out, and bagging breakfasts to the tune of classical music playing on the radio.
Someone asks if they have any warm gloves to give out, and a 7-10 Club member searches through several large plastic containers filled with clothes.
Riel and Justice, along with another warming centre staff member, arrive for their shift, and start spacing out tables and chairs – the warming centre has a capacity of 15 people at a time due to COVID-19 restrictions.
It’s a place where the homeless are allowed to exist, and a big part of what the warming centre offers is safety, says Riel.
“They really need a place to go, the homeless. They can’t just be stuck out on the street all day, being harassed by whatever authority figures, or each other even. [The centre] is a safe place for them,” he says.
Riel is happy to be part of that, he says, especially as he spent 10 years on the street himself. This is his first job since getting off the streets. “It’s kind of giving back,” he says of his job. “It’s nice.”
For Justice, working at the centre reveals another side of those who use the centre.
“It can be fun at times,” she says. “The community gets really close together … They are really interesting people,” and some share interesting stories of travel and other experiences.
When asked how warming centre clients are doing, they say the centre is helping, but they’re clear-eyed about what people need.
“They definitely need a lot more help,” says Riel. “The warming centre is good. But they need somewhere to go: housing for some, a lot of them need mental health [support], it could be institutions for them. They really want help. Otherwise … they lash out. Crime happens.”
“There are some resources that are lacking,” says Justice. “And it’s really difficult to reach properly [what is available]. And it can be a really long time to wait.”
For some supports, you need an ID, for example, but just getting an ID presents a lot of hoops to jump through, says Justice. “It gets complicated, especially with COVID going on, with nowhere to sit inside during the day, except for places like these. There aren’t that many, and we aren’t open all day, either. It gets really cold in the evening, too.”
But the warming centres are making a difference. Even access to plumbing, and being able to wash your hands is an improvement, says Riel. Snacks and warm drinks are provided.
“I would enjoy something like this when I was on the streets, too,” he says.
For some, the warming centre is a connection to further help, and a way to move forward in their lives.
“There are lots of outreach workers that come here and help them find housing,” says Riel.
But not everyone is there for that.
“Some people just don’t want the help or aren’t ready for it,” says Justice. “But they come here in the meantime and just hang out and warm up. So it’s helpful in different aspects.”
Nanaimo’s warming centres are making a difference in the day-to-day lives of our homeless neighbours. For some, it’s helping them off the streets. More is needed, and there is more work yet to be done.