Homeless people in Vancouver made hundreds of visits to the City’s new temporary warming centres as temperatures plummeted below zero recently.
The warming centres, set up in Britannia, Creekside and West End community centres, are different to shelters, allowing visitors to come and go without registering.
“Just come if you’re cold, you don’t have to worry about anything,” said Ethel Whitty, Director of Homelessness Services. “Sit in a chair and drink some hot cocoa.”
Whitty told reporters on Monday that the Britannia centre has had a nightly average of 150 visits since it opened. She estimates that accounts for about 50 people.
Although the centres are mostly used as a space to simply warm up, homeless people are also welcome to turn up with their bedroll and spend the night, said Whitty.
On average, 14 people have been sleeping at the Britannia and Creekside centres every night, said Whitty, while 10 people have been bedding down at the West End centre.
Whitty admitted there have been complaints from parents living near the Creekside centre, who have found needles in the area since the warming centre opened.
“This is a reality in all our communities,” said Whitty. “You have to watch the environments. The staff there do everything they can do to make sure those environments are clean.”
Visitors are not allowed to use drugs inside the warming centres, she said, but sometimes it happens in the washroom, for example.
“People have been regularly asked to leave if they are doing that in the centre, but they are still welcome to come back when they are no longer doing that.”
City Manager Sadhu Johnston added that the initiative is a first for the City so staff are learning as they go, but the warming centres may be set up in future years.
One idea, he said, during longer cold spells, was to rotate which community centres were used as warming centres; that way no single area would be at risk from needles.
“We know it brought a lot of people in from the cold, probably saved lives,” Johnston said. “That comes with an inconvenience and we need to figure out how we share that.”