Everyone deserves a safe place to call home. The reality is, with rising housing costs, the risk of homelessness is growing in cities across Metro Vancouver.

Working with local community groups, the City of Burnaby identified the need to create a warm and welcoming space for homeless residents to spend cold nights. In 2018, the City opened four warming centres, run by the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services department. Forty staff were hired and trained — and their work had an immediate impact.

“Opening these shelters was about saving lives – giving people with no other option a place to stay safe,” said Chris Revitt, Burnaby’s Superintendent of Parks Operations.

The warmings centres were run out of city facilities, operating overnight between 8pm and 8am daily. Visitors were offered sleep mats, warm drinks and snacks, as well as important connections to health and housing resources.

In the first year of operation, Burnaby’s warming centres welcomed an average of 36 visitors a night. That number more than doubled to 74 with the onset of COVID-19.

Mayor Mike Hurley (L) and Dave Ellenwood (Director Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services) accept BCRPA’s inaugural Community Excellence Leadership Award on behalf of the City of Burnaby.

The pandemic created new challenges and opportunities for Burnaby to continue meeting the community’s needs. The City opened a larger warming centre at the Burnaby Lake Complex to accommodate physical distancing. New staff were hired and assigned to teams, to reduce the risk of COVID transmission.

Keeping visitors and staff safe was a priority. Public health nurses visited regularly to offer medical support and testing for COVID-19. New safety procedures and measures were introduced as well, including plexiglass, PPE and enhanced cleaning protocols.

Although the warming centres were due to close at the end of March, operations were extended to assist with the pandemic response, with the largest facility closing July 1.

“We have a phenomenal team of staff who have stepped up and shown empathy, compassion and leadership,” said Revitt. “The things they do every night is the reason this program is so successful.”

Along with staff, many in the community have reached out to offer support to Burnaby’s warming centres. Over the past two years, residents, non-profit groups, members of the Burnaby Fire Fighters IAFF Local 323 and CUPE 23 have donated socks, hygiene products, hot meals and Christmas gift bags.

Revitt emphasizes that while warming centre guests appreciate the snacks and warm place to sleep, it’s the social and emotional support that can make the biggest difference.

“Our warming centre staff are the conduit to connect guests with more stable housing and other support services,” said Revitt. “People can come in and share their stories with staff. They talk about the challenges they face, and they no longer feel invisible because someone is listening and someone cares.”

In response to the pandemic, the City opened a larger warming centre at the Burnaby Lake Complex to accommodate physical distancing.

The warming centres are just one component in Burnaby’s approach to creating homes for all. In 2019, the City provided land for a round-the-clock shelter with 38 beds, funded by BC Housing and operated by a local agency. The City also provided land at another site in 2019 for BC Housing to create more than 50 modular supportive housing units for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

These initiatives deliver on key recommendations of the Mayor’s Task Force on Community Housing, which in 2019 explored strategies to improve housing affordability in Burnaby. The City of Burnaby is continuing to chart the way forward, this year working with residents on HOME: Burnaby’s Housing and Homelessness Strategy, which will guide the City’s housing decisions for the next decade.

While Burnaby continues to face housing affordability challenges, the City strives to remain inclusive for all residents. Receiving the inaugural Community Leadership Excellence Award in 2020 from the BC Recreation and Parks Association for the the Warming Centre Project is an honour and a testament to the leadership, compassion and dedication of staff in creating a healthy and vibrant community.

About the Author: Chris Revitt, Superintendent Parks Operations, is committed to engaging with the community and creating opportunities for those in need. He oversees park safety in Burnaby and taught playground safety awareness to municipalities and school boards across the province as a BCRPA instructor. Chris is also a member of Burnaby Urban Search and Rescue and volunteered in the recovery effort in the Bahamas following Hurricane Dorian. Born and raised in Burnaby, Chris is proud to give back to the community through the Intentional Acts of Kindness (IAK) Foundation he established with his wife in 2017.

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