Shelter accessed sixty times in December
John Scott is the kind of guy who never has a coat or gloves, because he gives what little he has to others.
His struggles with alcohol have left him homeless since Christmas and so most nights Scott finds a couch to crash on or curls up in an alleyway to catch a few winks of sleep, but the cold snowy weather has made that difficult.
Sunday evening, however, Scott was watching TV in a comfy armchair at the emergency shelter on Coutlee Avenue with a full stomach and a warm cup of tea in his hands.
“I really respect the shelter,” said Scott who is a member of the Coldwater Indian Band. “[The volunteers] don’t pressure you, they’re good listeners, they feed you good food and lots of snacks, and we can take turns changing the channel.”
The volunteer-driven emergency shelter, which opened as a community response to a lack of funding from BC Housing this year, is open nightly from 5 p.m. until 8 a.m. the following morning.
Community Policing Coordinator Kelly Donaldson said the shelter was accessed 60 times during December and has been full to capacity with five guests on more than one occasion, though on most nights volunteers welcome between two and four guests.
“It’s a cozy place, I can see why people like to be there,” said Donaldson. “It seems that as soon as the doors are open, there are people there.”
Merritt’s spell of extremely cold weather didn’t seem to affect the numbers and people are accessing the shelter consistently even on slightly warmer nights, said volunteer coordinator Flo Campbell.
“It’s not dependent on the weather; people just need a place to put their heads,” she said.
Running solely on volunteer power, the shelter needs at least four people a night to operate — two volunteers per shift for safety and at least two shifts per night.
Campbell said the shelter volunteers are great, always jumping in at the last minute when there are shifts that need to be filled, but she is worried that people might start burning out.
“I’m in need of new volunteers to ease the burden on the people who do most of the volunteering,” said Campbell.
Currently there are about 35 people on the volunteer list and between them they put in almost 900 volunteer hours during the month of December. Even so, volunteers at the shelter enjoy what they do.
On Sunday evening volunteers Bonnie and Lynne opened the shelter and served a spaghetti dinner before the guests settled down to watch some TV.
“I enjoy getting to know the people who come in,” said Lynne. “Often they relax and watch TV and sometimes we get going on a hot game of crib.”
So far, both volunteers have found the guests to be very respectful. Volunteers welcome guests who don’t have a place to stay, even those who are under the influence, but the expectation is that they won’t drink or use drugs while they are at the shelter.
Scott says he has respect for the rules and wants to tell his friends that the shelter is a welcoming place.
“Some of them don’t want to come because they think it’s kind of like jail with rules and regulations, but I invite them anyway,” he said.
Both Bonnie and Lynn say the shelter has filled a need in the community. In fact, both women heard about the Housing Task Group’s efforts to get a shelter going from the newspaper and decided to volunteer.
“I followed the stories and I was enormously concerned that there wouldn’t be a shelter this year,” said Bonnie. “I was relieved that the community had stepped forward to provide a service that was much needed.”
At this point, the emergency shelter will operate until the end of March, however, most people involved agree that Merritt needs a shelter on a permanent basis.
“Although it came together as a winter response, we feel it is needed 12 months a year,” said Donaldson.
Under the current arrangement, the emergency shelter represents the joint efforts of various community groups including NVISA, the City of Merritt, three local First Nations bands as well as private donations. However, Campbell says there would have to be more funding to make the shelter a sustainable year-round operation.
“We couldn’t run it by volunteer power for a year,” she said. “It’s difficult getting enough volunteers now.”
For now, Campbell says she is focusing on continuing to provide a warm, friendly environment until the end of the season. She is still looking for volunteers, particularly people willing to work the graveyard shift from midnight until 8 a.m. Interested volunteers should contact the Community Policing Office at 250-378-3955.