A daytime warming centre that opened in South Surrey at the peak of last weekend’s extreme cold snap is set to close Monday night (Jan. 3) at 10 p.m., after more than a week of filling an “immensely” needed role – that of providing a safe, warm place on the Semiahmoo Peninsula where those in need of shelter can also find food, compassion and conversation.
“It seems to be a need everywhere,” Upkar Singh Tatlay, a South Surrey resident and executive director of the non-profit Engaged Communities Canada Society (ECCS) that is operating the centre, said Wednesday.
“For better or worse – and I think it’s unfortunate – but the population was ready to be served, so it’s something that’s badly needed.”
The centre, located at Peninsula United Church (15639 24 Ave.), opened at 7 a.m. on Boxing Day (Dec. 26), just two days after officials in White Rock decided there wasn’t enough time for the city to establish a warming centre ahead of the cold spell, which forecast near-record-low temperatures.
Tatlay said his organization, however, is able to quickly mobilize when such needs arise, and the centre was opened just two days after ECCS received the call for help.
“Our urgency is making sure lives are saved and out of this cold,” he said, noting people “were already experiencing hardship” when the call to help came in.
“We had people lose fingers,” he continued. “One person, we still don’t know how he made out. Unfortunately, he was taken to VGH from South Surrey/White Rock. We’re hoping he’s OK.”
Tatlay explained that the situation was shared by a man who came to the warming centre on Dec. 26, who told of a friend who had already been having issues with his hands being cold during the day. The morning that the warming centre opened, he told Tatlay, paramedics had had to transport his friend to hospital.
“We’re hoping for the best,” Tatlay said.
Tatlay said the warming centre has been hitting capacity (30) during the coldest hours of the day, with patrons ranging in age from their early 20s to 70-plus. The numbers thin out to between 8 a.m. and noon, when the sun is at its highest point, but the space quickly fills back up by around 5 p.m.
In addition to those who find their own way there, the guests arrive via assistance from RCMP and by taxi from area hospitals. The majority, however, are those who also access the extreme-weather shelter at nearby Mount Olive Lutheran Church (2350 148 St.), who are shuttled to and from the warming centre in a van provided by UNITI.
Bruce Strom, senior manager of homelessness services for Options Community Services – which staffs the Mount Olive shelter – said Mount Olive has been operating “well beyond” its 20-mat capacity on many occasions of late. From Dec. 24-28, up to 30 clients arrived each night to hunker down, and the turnout is expected to continue “for as long as we remain open through this stretch.”
“This is true for all the sites we operate and the strain on our staff and my management team is significant,” Strom said.
Tatlay said the South Surrey warming centre provides patrons with some of the basics that most people take for granted, such as a warm bowl of food, opportunities to watch a movie or find some clean clothes, and a chance – if they want it – to talk, including about the struggles they face and what other resources could help them.
“That’s an aspect of shelters many people don’t realize,” he said. “It’s not just a roof over your head, but it’s the meaningful-dialogue conversations and identifying what their other needs are.
“Sometimes, all it comes down to is that opportunity to have those conversations, and it really changes people.”
As we cleaned up our shelter last night we were handed beautiful artwork by one of our guests. Sharing this with all our fellow volunteers, nonprofits, and organizations working hard to keep people safe, warm and loved during these difficult weeks. #shelter #cold #surrey pic.twitter.com/Sd8eRiybtP— Engaged Communities (ECCS) (@EngagedCommuni2) December 29, 2021
Such services are needed year-round, he added, pointing to last summer’s extreme heat, when ECCS set up mobile cooling centres for those who needed a safe place to escape the elements.
Community response to news of the warming centre opening has been positive, Tatlay said. People have been dropping by with donations, and Tatlay said the gestures indicate they are “definitely in support of helping this population.”
Anyone wanting to drop by with donations – hand warmers and gloves are particularly appreciated – is asked to call 778-223-6987 or email email@example.com so that someone will be ready to greet them. Otherwise, donors are asked to wait outside for a volunteer.
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