Two people who live within the troubled Fourth Avenue corridor in Port Alberni are concerned warming centres will attract more unwanted attention to the neighbourhood.
Kayla Garcia walks her dogs every day in Dry Creek Park, and said she sees drug paraphernalia on the paths every day. There are encampments in the park too, and she won’t bring her young family to the park. She has seen first hand the negative effects a warming centre can have on an area, and worries the same thing will happen here.
The City of Port Alberni has approved a plan by the Grassroots Homelessness Coalition to provide pop-up outdoor warming places for the city’s unsheltered during the cold winter months. In trial runs in 2020 and 2021, the warming centres provided seating around propane fires as well as warm drinks, food, naloxone kits and hygiene packages.
Garcia was working at a 7-Eleven convenience store in Nanaimo last year when a warming centre popped up in a nearby backyard—some well-meaning neighbours wanted to provide a place for that city’s unsheltered population to warm up. The nightly backyard firepit was not regulated, and it caused grief to nearby business owners, she said.
She finally left the job due to stress from the increased foot traffic in the area.
“I understand (Port Alberni’s warming centres) are under city bylaws. During the hours it’s not open, that’s the time for people to suffer,” she said.
Shaun Adams lives near the Port Alberni Friendship Center, across from the spare lot approved as one of several warming centre locations. He has been dealing with litter and criminal behaviour in and around his yard for the past three years. He isn’t happy that the city approved the pop-up centres for winter.
“I know it’s unsympathetic…but from those places people disperse,” he said.
“On one hand I don’t like the idea of having a warming centre…on the other hand the need is there. I do understand the need.”
Adams said following last year’s trial pop-up centres he dealt with garbage from takeout food containers that were distributed at the warming centre and then tossed in the street once the food was consumed. Others in the neighbourhood have taken to cleaning up garbage and drug paraphernalia because the city’s public works department isn’t keeping up.
“The city is overwhelmed by homelessness issues and mental health and addictions issues,” he said.
Lisa George, Alice Sam and Graham Hughes started the pop-up warming spots as a temporary solution last year when the city’s homelessness issue drew to a head with the formation of a tent city in front of Our Home on Eighth shelter. The Grassroots coalition grew from that temporary move into a cohesive non-profit.
George said there seems to be a misconception that the coalition is setting up encampments at the warming centres. “We’re not encouraging folks to stay,” she said. “We’re not wanting people to sit and hang out all night. It’s ‘get warm, get a meal, let us give you some supplies if you need them.’ It’s about keeping the connection, but it’s not a ‘come sit and hang out for endless hours of the evening.’”
George said the people they saw at the pop-up centres last year were already living in the area—that’s why they chose the locations that the city approved. The main warming centre will be on Fourth Avenue at Dry Creek Park and will start Tuesday, Nov. 2 since temperatures at night have dipped below freezing. “That’s our hub because that’s where people are,” she said.
There won’t be numerous centres operating at once because the Grassroots Homelessness Coalition doesn’t have a large bank of volunteers. There will likely be one warming centre per night, starting with Tuesdays and Thursdays for now, with one night a week at Tidebrook Park on Gertrude Street as a trial. The city has approved the centres for 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. with conditions, which include making sure the area is clean when they leave, and they must be dismantled within two hours of closure.
The coalition has received a $2,500 Community Investment Program grant which was used to replace equipment lost when the city dismantled a temporary shelter at Rogers Creek Park last fall.
While Adams said the addition of a Porta Pottie at a pop-up warming centre would be a good idea, George said it is cost prohibitive. She has purchased a travel trailer that she will bring to the centre to provide cooking and washroom facilities for volunteers.
—With files from Elena Rardon