People who find themselves with no place to sleep at night in Merritt will not be left out in the cold this year after all.

Although funding for an Extreme Weather Response Shelter did not come through this year, Merritt’s Housing Task Group has spear-headed a community effort to open an emergency shelter during the winter months.

The volunteer-driven emergency shelter located in the old Spirit of the Youth building at 2199 Coutlee Avenue, will open nightly from 5 p.m. until 8 a.m. the following morning from Dec. 1 to March 31, 2012.

“For many people working with our homeless and at risk persons, it was felt that a winter shelter with good accessibility is still a need in our community,” said RCMP Cst. Tracy Dunsmore.

Though funding from BC Housing was not available, the Housing Task Group, a sub-committee of Merritt’s Social Planning Council, worked with the city and different agencies in the community to come up with a solution over a very short period of time, said Dunsmore.

The new shelter is available for people who find themselves homeless for whatever reason during the winter months and is available on a nightly basis.

In previous years, Merritt’s extreme weather shelter was open on Monday nights as well as any additional night where the temperature dropped below -8C. Because it was funded by BC Housing, the guidelines were very specific, said Dunsmore.

The challenge, however, was getting the word out to people and committee members found that people weren’t accessing the shelter because they never knew if it was open or not.

“If you’re out in the cold, you can’t tell if it’s -8C or not,” said Dunsmore. “Now we’re able to offer them somewhere to sleep every evening.”

“For the people already sleeping under the bridge, our shelter is more accessible.”

The new emergency shelter represents a joint effort of various community groups including NVISA, the City of Merritt, three local First Nations Bands as well as private donations.

“It’s amazing how many agencies and people have stepped up,” said Community Policing Coordinator Kelly Donaldson. “We’re pretty confident that this is going to be a success.”

Donaldson said that at the end of the season, the committee will evaluate the shelter and discuss the feasibility of running a shelter throughout the year.

“The reality is there is a need for a shelter year-round,” she said.

Alternate shelter options are still available during extreme weather conditions through ASK Wellness. On nights when the temperature drops to -8 C or below, those needing shelter can contact the Merritt RCMP or the ASK Wellness office located at the Tradewinds Terrace on Granite Avenue. As long as people are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, outreach workers or the RCMP will arrange for them to stay at two pre-determined motels.

Dunsmore pointed out that while this option is still available, people don’t have to go through the RCMP to access the new emergency shelter and volunteers will accept people even if they are under the influence of drugs and alcohol, (though drugs and alcohol can’t be consumed on the premises).

Anyone interested in volunteering at the shelter can contact the Community Policing Office at 250-378-3955 or email [email protected].