Warming the Heart of the Community

by Lauryn Mackenzie | 01.11.22 | Features, News

This winter has been one of the coldest on record for the Nanaimo area. Most fortunate people have a warm place to escape the frigid winter wind, but for many others, this isn’t the case. Multiple advocacy and community-led groups have stepped up to help those in need of extra support. One organisation in particular, […]
Three Risebridge workers stand beside each other by the main door of the warming centre

This winter has been one of the coldest on record for the Nanaimo area. Most fortunate people have a warm place to escape the frigid winter wind, but for many others, this isn’t the case.

Multiple advocacy and community-led groups have stepped up to help those in need of extra support. One organisation in particular, RISEBRIDGE, or The Rise Bridge Project, has seen a greater need for warming centres for people who have nowhere else to go.

RISEBRIDGE is a female-led, nonprofit organisation devoted to taking action towards equity and allyship for the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities in Nanaimo and the surrounding areas. They create safe spaces for connection, peer mentorship opportunities, and decolonized programming that is both trauma-informed and culturally rooted to the immediate needs in the community.

Jovan Johnson co-created RISEBRIDGE in November 2020, with a focus on women in leadership roles.

“It started as just a woman extension of a woman empowerment program, [with] pre and postnatal separation support, and then we adopted more of the mandate [of] BIPOC advocacy and culturally appropriate support and active advocacy in the community,” Johnson said. “But we always had the plan here that we would be harm-reduction-forward, and we would respond to the emergency need and crisis within our communities.” 

Johnson saw the lack of support for certain marginalised groups in Nanaimo and of safe places for those individuals to meet in.

“Over the years, [Nanaimo has] had no youth drop-in groups for example, or men’s support groups, and we have a lack of resources as far as the counselling accessibility goes,” Johnson said. “So, knowing that was a huge need, we decided to start one in the summer. We had the youth drop-in group going, men’s support group, the women’s empowerment groups, and more low barrier accessible services.”

RISEBRIDGE is currently running events and support groups every day, including holidays, as staff members work hard to make sure members of the public are well cared for. Many of the events are Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) campaigns and involvement with local businesses and organisations. They even held groups on December 25 to make sure everyone had a place to go.

The events also include men’s and women’s groups, 16-step recovery wellness holistic journaling and empowerment programs, and African community connection opportunities.

“Every single day we had drop-in programs going throughout the summer and throughout the fall, which were really well attended and gave us an opportunity to kind of do our case management services and assist specifically BIPOC or women fleeing domestic violence,” Johnson said.

Along with campaigns and events, RISEBRIDGE started WARMREACH, a warming centre for people in need as the weather got colder outside. The warming centre allows individuals (as well as their animals) to come inside and warm up while being able to access clean dry clothes and snacks. 

When RISEBRIDGE heard that the Society for Equity, Inclusion and Advocacy (commonly known as SEIA) was closing their warming centre, they decided to start their own.

“We decided to take my own personal camping equipment down and set up outside The Vault [Café] just to be able to establish [a source of support] at least for a few days, while we gave everyone else in the community a chance to figure out the game plan moving forward,” she said.

WARMREACH started the first week of December with a few tents and propane fires on the street. However, by December 15, with support from Crankshaw Holdings and Gabriel’s Café, they were able to move into an old yoga studio at 380 Terminal Avenue. The space is used for tables and chairs—unlike in a shelter where there would be beds—as well as a spot with a TV where movies are always being played. 

“The first day that we opened our doors, we met capacity within an hour, [which] at any given time is 28 people,” Johnson said. “We are always full. So, it is actually quite amazing.”

Johnson has seen no problems at the centre. Everyone who uses the space governs themselves and can choose when they want to leave. When most people realise they’ve been there for a while, they will leave to make room for someone else.

WARMREACH operates at two different times a day to fill the gaps when other warming services are closed: 5:30–8:30 am and 3:30–9:30 pm.

“We really want to be able to provide support for the hours that aren’t available so that there would be an option for harm reduction, accessibility, and just support in general that outreach teams could connect with or people can connect with resources,” she said.

Every day roughly 100 people use WARMREACH’s services.

“[People] continue to ask me if everyone here is a drug user, or street entrenched, and it really is not [the case]. I would say about 60–70 percent do self-medicate. Not everyone is technically unhoused,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of people who are using this space right now that maybe have shelter in their cars or in their trailers, and they just don’t have access to heat right now.”

Johnson said that there are many people “coming in to warm up or get clean and get dry boots or clean socks.” There are also some low-income individuals, including families, who know that WARMREACH has winter gear available or hygiene products if they’ve run out.  

Feran Berg is the Vice President of the Nanaimo Pride Society and began working for RISEBRIDGE a couple of months ago under the LGBTQ+ section. They assist at WARMREACH as a community support worker.

Berg said a big part of their job is working with the community and assisting with whatever help or resources are needed. As someone who has been on the streets before, they said that the stigmas many people may have around warming centres or shelters are wrong.

“I’ve never had a problem [at WARMREACH]. I feel safer with a lot of these people than I do at a shopping mall, to be honest. They don’t look down on me here,” Berg said. “These people run on street rules and street love, and they do take care of each other the best that they can. They will also protect the people who helped them,” Berg said.

The people they serve and meet in the community always help each other out. If an incident were to happen on the streets, these individuals would be the ones to help de-escalate the situation.

RISEBRIDGE understands how important it is to have low-barrier options and to look at things through a trauma-informed lens. This means staff members don’t wear uniforms or show off their titles or educational backgrounds. They are just people wanting to meet and support others.

Aside from protocols following COVID-19 guidelines and on keeping everyone safe and respected, WARMREACH doesn’t have any specific rules; so far, there have been zero incidents at the centre.

“[WARMREACH is] not what people expect. They assume it’s going to be complete wild house chaos; it is not. It is always quiet. There’s always a movie going on. Everyone is always super grateful, polite, respectful,” Johnson said.

WARMREACH does more than just keep individuals warm. Having the centre at its downtown location allows RISEBRIDGE workers to be more involved in the community and is a social atmosphere for people who are seeking shelter from the cold streets.

WARMREACH has become a place where people can go to seek help or assistance from RISEBRIDGE workers and as a place to help with a situation or seek medical help if someone is in need of first aid, Naloxone, or Narcan.

Now more than ever, warming centres are a necessity, and the City of Nanaimo has been under fire for its treatment of individuals in search of shelter.

On January 5, 2022 RISEBRIDGE documented on their Facebook page that the City of Nanaimo and the RCMP allegedly “[stole] many tarps/tents and sleeping bags etc from the individuals whom [were] finding shelter and safety under the bridge and in the parkade [below Bastion Street Bridge] over the past few days.”

RISEBRDIGE was notified immediately and sent advocates to observe.

Johnson commented on the Facebook post saying the situation occurred in the morning when the Salvation Army was giving out meals. Many individuals were outside the area, leaving their belongings behind. They returned to the parkade to find much had been taken, or trashed.

No one at RISEBRIDGE had been notified in advance of the situation taking place. They emphasised that it was not handled “in a trauma-informed way.” 

RISEBRIDGE writes that they are concerned with Nanaimo only having two small shelters, and that hotels and motels are either full or inaccessible to people without a visa card. Sleeping in places like the covered parkade is the only shelter some people have.

“No one chooses to shelter in a cold parkade overnight, but it’s the only option for a lot of individuals right now,” RISEBRIDGE states.

The Facebook post states RISEBRIDGE wished the city or the RCMP had reached out to them (as they were only half a block away from the parkade and their location is known to both groups) or any other outreach team who have relationships with many of the people in the parkade. 

Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog told Chek News that the City had been monitoring the encampment and saw problems appearing. Fires were being started and people were damaging property and preventing access to the parkade.

Krog said that the encampment “was very frightening for many citizens,” and had to be shut down due to public safety concerns. He assured Chek News that the individuals were given 24 hours’ notice by RCMP.

The City also released a statement on the matter saying the encampment rendered the parkade inaccessible to pedestrian traffic and highlighting the potential danger. 

The statement reads: “Fires were set inside the parkade and in the stairwells and five propane tanks were removed. In addition, a number of parking ticket kiosks were taken out of service after they were extensively damaged and had the power cables severe.”

The statement notes that warnings were given, with enforcement officers directed individuals to leave on January 2. On January 4, everyone was again directed by the City and RCMP to leave as the encampment would be closing the next day and all the items in the encampment would be packed up and removed for cleaning the next morning.

RISEBRIDGE said on a January 6 Facebook post that “there was zero notice given to the individuals whom where taking shelter.”

Ultimately, many individuals had to find somewhere new to sleep that night, without their personal gear, as the temperature dropped below zero degrees and it snowed an estimated 15–25 centimetres.

For many people living in Nanaimo, WARMREACH is the only place they can rest in a safe and warm environment. Once the centre closes for the night, it’s up to the individuals to seek different accommodation, no matter the weather or temperature.

“I wish the city mayor would sit with us even at nine o’clock at night when everyone has to leave, when we have to kick everybody out,” Johnson said. “This difficult moment, knowing [Nanaimo] only has two shelters that are [already] at capacity. We have no rental vacancies. We have no open motels or hotels in this entire community right now. There’s literally nowhere to go.” 

“These are community members; they live here. So why would we be assuming that we should be sending them away? This is a community-made problem that the community should be supporting more, instead of just [giving] performative speeches.”

Johnson said she hopes the warming centre can stay open year-round as it has become clear that WARMREACH and many of its services are a huge necessity in the community.

“I think our community needs this to keep going … [this space is] more than just a warming space, it is a place of community connection, and resource connection. We have now been the first door that people come to if there’s an emergency, if they’re seeking rehab support, if they’re needing access to something,” Johnson said. “The court opened again this morning, so we had four individuals who had court today and they came in and asked for assistance at least brushing their hair, wiping their face, getting clean clothes on.”

Due to a lack of funding, Johnson doesn’t know how long the centre will be able to stay open. She explained that WARMREACH makes their plan on a daily basis depending on what the community needs but that, unfortunately, “there is no short-term accessible funding to be able to operate that way.” 

Usually, grant funding requires a written plan for the year in advance. Johnson said that several grants she wrote last summer no longer reflect the needs she sees in the community now, because, as time goes on and she spends more time meeting with people, she learns more about the community and its always-changing needs.

The Rise Bridge Project and WARMREACH have become a beacon of hope and warmth for community members, allowing people and their families to find shelter and support in a city with overcrowded shelters, housing shortages, and underfunded support.

RISEBRIDGE is always looking for donations of granola bars, water bottles, juice boxes, fruit, and hot chocolate, along with any type of winter or rain gear such as winter boots, rain jackets, and sweaters. Right now, donations can be dropped off at Lucid at 35 Commercial Street from 10 am to 6 pm. Financial donations are greatly appreciated as well.

Visit their website to learn more about the organisation and volunteering opportunities, as well as their Facebook and Instagram to keep up with their events.

Lauryn is a fourth-year Digital Media Studies student. She has had her work featured in the Powell River Peak, Portal Magazine, and The Discourse. When she’s not looking up fun facts about bees, she’s probably fantasying about Portland, Oregon.

""There are a lot of people who are using this space right now that maybe have shelter in their cars or in their trailers, and they just don't have access to heat right now.""
""We have now been the first door that people come to if there's an emergency, if they're seeking rehab support, if they're needing access to something.""

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