Lessons learned from past experiences

Just as the holidays of 2016 began, the weather in Vancouver was abnormally cold for extended periods of time. This unexpected cold spell put people in Vancouver who were homeless at the time, at risk. An emergency conference call had all the city leaders planning for the health and safety of all our citizens. The community pulled together to open more spaces overnight so that our most vulnerable members of our community would have a place to rest, a safe place to refuel with healthy snacks and beverages, and a quiet place to warm up before heading back onto the streets.

Community Centres, not normally open overnight, stepped up with their staff and community centre associations, to fill the gaps in service.  In particular, the West End and Britannia Community Centres were open each night with an average of 15-20 people at any given time taking refuge.

For over 40 nights between December and March, the homeless people in our communities were welcomed to stay, to enjoy some conversation and to be safe.  Over 2000 visits to the various centres, supported by over 100 volunteers resulted in saved lives.  This emergency situation galvanized the community to step up for our most vulnerable.  On Christmas day, and throughout the holidays, staff and volunteers gave of their time in order to make sure that the centres were open and accessible for all. Community Centre teams are trained and prepared to provide emergency centres, however warming centres were something new.  Without hesitation, the folks at the front line stepped up, alongside the community members, to figure things out in order to provide this vital service.  We jumped into action opening our doors from 10 pm until 7 am, providing snacks, coffee, hot chocolate, water and a place to rest. In some centres movies played all night in the lobby; and at others, quiet conversations helped pass the time.  Every day the team was faced with new situations, new challenges, and new friends.

The learning curve was big. As the senior person in charge, I am so proud of the staff and volunteers that took this task on with courage and grace. What were the challenges inviting the not-your-average-user inside? While we maintained low to no barriers to access, we did not allow drug use on site.  We did allow dogs, shopping carts and all personal belongings on site.  Yes, there were some situations where visitors became agitated, but the vast majority of the attendees were appreciative and respectful. Teamwork was paramount as recreation staff were supported by Community Services and Youth Worker personnel that have been trained to work with marginalized community members, people with mental health issues, and generally with people who are homeless.

Coming into the 2017-18 season the team was prepared, we anticipated having to open again and used what we learned from our previous years’ experience. Once again, staff and community came together in order open our doors and welcome the community during our coldest nights. This time we had training, we had an operations manual, we had structure, and we had experience.  While we didn’t need to open many nights, the ones we opened ran smoothly and once again, we saved lives.

Having a warm place to be during the coldest nights is important. Very important.  We can all be proud of the work we do in recreation, and sometimes we don’t even know how important that work is – after the warming centre experience I was reminded that “with great power comes great responsibility” (Voltaire and Uncle Ben in Spiderman).

Donnie Rosa is the Director of Recreation, Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation. With over 30 years of Recreation experience, Donnie is passionate about community, access to recreation for all and healthy active living.  A former professional athlete and coach, Donnie knows the importance of teamwork and driving excellence by working together. Contact her at Donnie.Rosa@vancouver.ca for more information or to share materials on the warming centres.