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Emergency warming centre opens in Smithers as mercury drops

Community bands together to install temporary warming centre next to Smithers library
A temporary warming centre is constructed at the Smithers library parking lot. (Morgan Powell/ The Interior News)

An emergency warming shelter is now open in the Smithers Library parking lot, allowing homeless community members to seek refuge from the cold.

“We’re trying to figure out what to do over the next few days to keep people alive,” said Mayor Gladys Atril at the council meeting on Jan. 9.

Environment and Climate Change Canada recently issued the Town a cold weather warning, indicating people’s lives could be severely at risk if exposed to the -30 degree temperatures expected this weekend.

In anticipation of frigid temperatures, director of emergency support services Matt Herzog submitted a report to council requesting approval for an emergency warming centre. Council approved the project, with funds being allocated provincially from the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness.

The warming centre officially opened on Jan. 10 at 6:30 p.m. and is available for anyone who needs a safe place to warm up. The centre is not exclusive to people who regularly reside at the encampment neighbouring the library.

The tent is currently available on a 24/7 basis and will be removed once the cold weather warning is rescinded.

The total project cost is $60,000 and consists of a 24’ x 14’ tent with electric heaters inside. The tent is lifted off the ground so people are not directly on the ground. The construction of the tent was contracted to a local company.

“We’re encouraging individuals who are vulnerably housed to utilize the services at Goodacre Place. This is just for those that either don’t want to access those services or aren’t able to access services,” explained Smithers director of community services Will George.

Goodacre Place offers temporary housing solutions, but does not have an official designation as a warming centre. There is often a waitlist to access the services at Goodacre Place.

“We need more permanent solutions to this, which is why we’re going to mention it in a letter to the premier,” said George.

At the recent council meeting, council members agreed this initiative was necessary, but advocated for a more appropriate long-term solution.

“My continued support will be contingent on how things go,” said Councilor Frank Wray. “As soon as it gets to be spring, everybody seems to forget this will be a concern again.”

Opening up a warming centre has been an ongoing conversation among the Town, staff, and other members of the community.

In a letter to council in December of last year, director of library services Wendy Wright said library staff were concerned for their neighbours’ need for warmth.”

Last year, library staff made an unofficial decision to open their doors early, so people in the neighbouring encampment could warm up.

Addressing the need for a warming centre, Wright wrote “library staff would much rather see a warming centre, such as a trailer with social service providers, at the encampment, but could not look away from people left outside in extreme cold.”

Myung Lee stepped in to her role as executive director for Smithers Community Services Association in May of last year. Since, she has been a strong advocate for better solutions to ensure vulnerable communities stay warm in the winter.

George explained the temporary warming centre is a wrap-around effort, involving the Town, Northern Health, First Nations Health Authority, Office of the Wet’suwet’en, Dze Ḻ Kant Friendship Centre, emergency services and RCMP.

“We have the full involvement of the RCMP and there’s regular check-ins to make sure the guidelines are posted. Our service agencies that we’re working together with are aware of the guidelines,” said George.

Signage posted outside the tent details a list of rules stating people are not allowed to sleep overnight, store personal items, or use drugs while accessing the tent.

In addition to the police, Northern Health, the Office of the Witsuwit’en, and Dze Ḻ Kant Friendship Centre will also be providing regular check-ins.

First Nations Health Authority has agreed to step in if any of the service providers are not able to fulfill the needs of those accessing the services. Town Staff are also looking into employing private security to ensure all the guidelines are followed.

READ MORE: Town shuts down library from being used as warming centre

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RCMP will assist in enforcing the list of “rules” posted outside the emergency warming centre tent. (Morgan Powell/ The Interior News)

About the Author: Morgan Powell, Local Journalism Initiative

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