Burns Lake Band coordinate the conversion of that space into a temporary shelter for those with no walls and roofs of their own. (Facebook photo/Lakes District News)

Burns Lake Band coordinate the conversion of that space into a temporary shelter for those with no walls and roofs of their own. (Facebook photo/Lakes District News)

Temporary beds set up for shelter

Those who needed services needed it badly

Winter came hard at the Central Interior in the lead-up to the Christmas break. The spell of cold weather was bitter for everyone, but put those with no shelter to be in peril. Social service workers were concerned, including those at the Ts’il Kaz Koh (TKK) First Nation, [Burns Lake Band] in downtown Burns Lake, where a gymnasium was available.

TKK’s program manager Lori McCluskey stepped forward to coordinate the conversion of that space into a temporary shelter for those with no walls and roofs of their own. It addressed a concern she’d been harbouring for several winters.

“Over the past few years, the homeless population and vulnerable population in Burns Lake has grown, and we have never had anywhere for those people to go during the bad cold snaps, which we have always had, so I’m surprised it hasn’t been here before,” McCluskey said.

She had been an addictions counsellor in the area for years, so she was well versed in the area’s street-level vulnerabilities and who the casualties might be, “each year, worried about them and worried about them.”

The pandemic caused shifts in those who needed help, and the kinds of help that were available. It all turned concern into motivation for McCluskey, and she had full support from TKK staff and others who partnered in the effort.

By offering the space, it gave a strong starting point for a conversation held between local stakeholders like the Village of Burns Lake, the RCMP, victim services, The Link, Burns Lake Native Development Corporation, and others involved in those who are vulnerable.

The most important partner needed at the table was the provincial government, for funding much of the effort. A program under the Ministry of Emergency Management & Climate Readiness is available to set up cold weather respite. McCluskey went through their parameters to qualify, and once the temperature crossed the mandatory -10 C threshold, the funding kicked in.

A collection was made of sleeping bags, personal hygiene products, cots left over from wildfire evacuations were made available, on-site security and first-aid people were deployed, and other necessary steps to ensure a safe place for all. The public donated winter clothing, warm food, and other essentials.

“It was quite a response,” McCluskey said.

Few people required the service, but those who did needed it badly. Some were living in the supportive housing complex partially complete at the site of the former Burns Lake Motor Inn, but they needed a place to warm up during the day since they were without vehicle.

“We had one elderly gentleman there the whole time. He didn’t have power or heat in his home, so he needed it,” McCluskey said.

The site was open from Dec. 16 until Dec. 24 when the temperature went above -10 C. McCluskey is concerned by that government line in the mercury. Death and other bodily harm can occur for those exposed to the elements even above freezing, and Burns Lake certainly has plenty of nights below zero.

If a cold snap hit again next week, reopening would require starting from scratch, said McCluskey, but at least they now have a template to speed up the process.

It also exposed a productive conversation between the stakeholders, so the talk can now advance to preemptive measure, preparations, and ways to ease the need in the first place.

For instance, now that this elder in particular need has been identified, perhaps volunteer efforts could be made to meet his needs well in advance of winter so he never again has to fear a cold spell in his own home.

And what about those who are passing through and their car breaks down? Or they live in an adjacent community and their ride home fell through? With hotel vacancies at a premium, and many who haven’t the financial means anyway, a permanent hostel might greatly enhance the community’s health and safety.

Summertime heatwaves are now part of the same kind of conversation, as well.

For those with housing security, food security, and mobility security, none of this is front of mind. But when the unexpected suddenly occurs, and for the most vulnerable who haven’t the financial backups of most, such shelter can be a matter of life and death.

“We do need to think about having something like this available full-time,” said McCluskey. “Burns Lake has shown over and over again that it is a very generous community, but sometimes, in some ways, when the vulnerable population is concerned, a blind eye is turned, especially when addictions are involved. I don’t know if that’s fear or judgement or just not knowing what to do, but that’s an area we can improve on, as a community.”

She knows this to be a shockingly generous community, when a plan is in place. Perhaps that is all that’s needed to gather the resources necessary to cover this important hole in the local safety net. Perhaps one spell of harsh winter weather has thawed the walls between organizers who build the necessary plans to keep our community from losing vulnerable people exposed to the elements.

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