Skip to content

New West extreme weather shelter keeping homeless folks warm on cold, wet nights

Shelter expected to be open through the weekend based on current weather forecasts

A tasty meal, a warm cot and bedding, and a pillow await folks at New Westminster’s newest extreme weather shelter.

The shelter that’s now operating on the lower floor of the former Army & Navy Department store building on Columbia Street is open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. on nights when extreme weather is forecast. It includes separate sections for men and women.

“BC Housing is working with our partners in New Westminster and around the province to provide shelter and services to those most in need during extreme weather,” said Tim Chamberlin, a senior communications advisor with BC Housing. “We recognize extreme weather events create significant risk to our homeless population and as such, BC Housing and our partners are doing what we can to support our most vulnerable.”

In November, New Westminster city council approved a temporary use permit that allows the Lower Mainland Purpose Society to operate an extreme weather shelter at 502 Columbia St. It opened on Thursday, Dec. 30.

Lynda Fletcher-Gordon, acting executive director of the Purpose Society, said the shelter had an average of 33 people a night from last Saturday to Monday. On Tuesday night, 40 people stayed at the shelter.

“We have a capacity for 50,” she said. “It’s much more popular than what we thought it was going to be.”

Fletcher-Gordon said New West police officers and firefighters called Purpose several times last week after encountering people who were on the street and were cold.

“They were cold and shivering, and almost hypothermic,” she said. “They were calling and asking where they could take them. We said, ‘Bring them here.’ We ended up with folks sitting in our lobby. We just try to warm them up, give them coffee, give them extra blankets or jackets or whatever. They sit there, and they get kind of get themselves together and feel better.”

After warming up at the society’s office on Begbie Street, it was back to the streets until the shelter opened at 8 p.m.

“So, they have a long time on the street,” Fletcher-Gordon said. “It is really, really debilitating. I was listening to somebody talk about the effects of cold on your body, and how quickly your body almost ages when you are cold and wet and damp. It’s an awful thing when people are caught outside and they have no place to go.”

Fletcher-Gordon said New Westminster has lots of shelters, relative to its size, but they’re all full. Although the temporary use permit allows the Columbia Street space to be used as an extreme weather shelter or a 24/7 shelter, for now it’s only being used on nights of extreme weather.

A warm welcome

Each community considers weather conditions and determines if their shelters should open. That could include cold temperatures, snow or extended rainfall that makes it difficult for people to stay dry or get their clothes dry.

When people arrive at the shelter they sign in (using a name or handle that they’re comfortable providing) and are told about the shelter’s expectations. They’re assigned a cot and linens, including a bottom and a top sheet, a comforter and a pillow – a luxury for people who are unhoused.

“We actually have pillows, which people seem to really like,” Fletcher-Gordon said. “They get assigned a cot. They have something to eat. We really encourage it as a place to sleep; it’s not a place to party, visit or whatever. They come in and they are asked to be quiet so people that do want to go right to sleep can do that. Throughout the night, if they are hungry, there are things like oatmeal or other warm, easy things to fix – hot chocolate and coffee, pastries, and things like that.”

Currently,  hot dinners and a morning breakfast are being donated for people to enjoy during their time at the shelter.

“The hardest part of the shift, what I hear from staff, is asking them to leave in the morning,” Fletcher-Gordon said. “No one wants to go back out into the cold.”

On the first night that the extreme weather shelter operated at the Army & Navy site, the building didn’t have enough heat so it was cold inside the downtown space.

“It was that 17-below night. People were cold so the staff gave them extra blankets, so everybody ended up warm,” Fletcher-Gordon said. “When I got there – I went in the morning at 5:30 or 6 o’clock – people were already outside having a cigarette. We ask them not do any drugs in the shelter, so they go outside. I was joking and said, ‘here you come to the shelter to get warm and you end up in a cold shelter, and we were laughing. A woman said, ‘It doesn’t matter. I had the best sleep I have ever had for such a long time.’ She was so grateful.”

According to BC Housing, the province is providing more than 1,900 temporary shelter spaces and approximately 500 extreme weather response spaces this winter season to ensure that people who are experiencing homelessness can get out of the cold and rain. Extreme weather shelters operate from Nov. 1 until March 31, on nights when a community issues an extreme weather alert.  

BC Housing provides funding to non-profits to hire staff to operate the shelters and also supplies items such as cots as part of the operational budget, Chamberlin said.

According to Chamberlin, there is no limit to how often a community can activate an extreme weather response shelter because they’re intended to provide safe, warm shelter from extreme elements.

The Columbia Street facility is the second extreme weather shelter to open in New West, complementing the 10 beds already in place at The Russell at 740 Carnarvon St.

Fletcher-Gordon thanked the community for supporting the new shelter on Columbia Street.

“There has been a lot of support for the shelter. Yes, there has been some trepidation around what might happen but I think overall people are very, very giving and caring,” she said. “We have had a lot of support around doing what we are doing. The staff too; the staff here at Purpose continue to step up and do what needs to be done.”

For people who want to support the shelter, Fletcher-Gordon said donations of pillows (which must be laundered after each use) and non-perishable food items, such as packages of oatmeal and hot chocolate or cereal are appreciated (as they are things people can snack on during the night or take with them when they leave for the day). Donations can be dropped off at the Purpose Society office at 40 Begbie St.

Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus