My tour of the new Burnaby warming centre was both inspiring and sad

Chris Campbell

Karen O’Shannacery wanted to tell me just how happy she was about Burnaby’s new warming centres, but she couldn’t.

Laryngitis will do that to a person.

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So the spokesperson for the Society to End Homelessness in Burnaby smiled and whispered a little as we toured one of the warming centres that the City of Burnaby has cobbled together in the past two weeks to show that our city does actually have a heart when it comes to people who are homeless.

We were touring the centre that’s been set up at Swangard Stadium. Mayor Mike Hurley was there to answer questions as well.

“It’s warm, it’s safe,” O’Shannacery whispered.

“It’s basic, but it’s a start,” said Hurley.

warming two
The warming centre has mats. - CHRIS CAMPBELL

Baby steps, right?

The city is finally taking decisive action by setting up the warming centres, with the next steps being a temporary shelter, then a permanent shelter, as well as more affordable housing. The whole exercise is both inspiring - because the city's taking action - and sad that Burnaby has to go so far to play catchup.

The room at Swangard isn’t big, but it’s definitely clean and warm. A stack of mats were in one corner. Tables and chairs were in the opposite corner. Next door were warm and clean washrooms facilities. There were bottles of water and packaged soups on a table. O’Shannacery said that her society, which is part of the larger local homelessness task force, received some food donations recently when the warming centres were announced. On Wednesday and Thursday nights, volunteers brought by fresh food for those who took advantage of the new centres.

So far, there’s been five or six people who have used the Swangard centre during peak times – roughly 1-2 a.m. Oh, and one dog, too.

Several have come by the other one set up at the Kensington Pitch and Putt Fieldhouse. A third warming centre is set to open tonight (Friday) at the City Operations Centre on Beresford Street. A fourth centre is still being prepared.

Signage has been put up to let people know about the centres. That’s key, according to O’Shannacery, because it’s all about getting the word out to people living rough. The society has been spreading the word to as many people as possible through its networks.

One issue, however, is convincing some people who are homeless to use the centres. It might sound weird, O’Shannacery said, but many people who are homeless have had bad interactions with authorities, such as bylaws officers and police. So it will take a little time for trust to build, she said.

The new warming centres leader will be a big part of that. Once the locations are finalized and they’ve been around for a while, more people are expected to use the service. O’Shannacery said once that happens, it’s the first step towards helping people access services that might lead to them getting off the streets permanently.

As I said, baby steps.

I’m just happy that action is being taken. Because it’s damn cold and wet out there.

Follow Chris Campbell @shinebox44 on Twitter and Instagram.

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