*We are terribly saddened to share the loss of Deanna Williams, who was featured in this blog post and video a few months before her death. Deanna was found dead in a tent on June 2, 2021.
She was 21.
Her loss is a tragedy, as is the fact that she did not get to experience the future she was working so hard to achieve, even in spite of having no home. She deserved the future she strove for, and more. We hope to see the warming centre’s like the one that was helping her work towards a future as a nurse get the funding they need to continue providing that kind of support to others. And we hope to see and pledge to keep working for supports and housing for Nanaimo’s homeless population, to protect people like Deanna.
Our deepest condolences to her family, friends and all who knew her.
Below is the story Deanna shared with us, discussing what it was like being homeless in Nanaimo, and working so hard to reach the future she wanted.
Two warming centres opened in Nanaimo on January 18, 2021, with support from United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island, and the Government of Canada’s Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy.
Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., they provide a place for our unsheltered neighbours to rest, to stay warm, have a bite to eat, charge their phones and be safe. Some have wondered if the warming centres offer only short-term benefit, helping people to better pass their day, but that’s it. In talking with the workers at the 285 Prideaux warming centre, and those who regularly use the warming centre at 489 Wallace, we’ve learned that these centres offer so much more.
This is the first time Deanna has been homeless.
She was 20 when it happened.
Planning to go to Vancouver Island University and follow her dream of becoming a nurse, Deanna couldn’t find an apartment to rent. She ended up staying at an Airbnb for a while, which drained her savings, and other arrangements fell through.
She spent her 21st birthday living in a shelter.
“It was pretty scary at first, not going to lie,” says Deanna. “But I’m pretty lucky. I’ve been able to find all the right resources and everything.”
One of those resources is the warming centre at 489 Wallace, run by the Society for Equity, Inclusion and Advocacy (SEIA). Even while homeless, she says it’s making her dream possible.
“At first I came here a lot more to warm up and have food and stuff like that,” she says. “But then I started my application process for VIU so I can hopefully apply for the bachelor of science in nursing degree.”
The Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre has played a big part in supporting Deanna and her goal of becoming a nurse, she says. But the warming centre functions as a safe place for her to study and use the internet.
That has been essential, she says, after finding she’s now unwelcome in many businesses where previously she could sit and use wifi.
“If I try and go anywhere else like Tim Hortons and stuff like that, they tend to kick me out after like half an hour or even less than that sometimes. So it’s nice to have somewhere that I can just sit down all day and study for my classes.”
“I really didn’t expect there to be such a stigma around the homeless community, especially downtown. We just kind of get looked at like we should all be locked up in a hospital or something … I know actually a few people who are putting themselves through schooling right now, while they are on the streets, living in a tent or a shelter and stuff like that.”
The experience of being looked down on by so many was alarming, she says.
“It doesn’t feel very good.”
Deanna admits she was a bit cautious about the warming centre at first, after experiencing the negativity around homelessness elsewhere. But what she found was support and compassion.
“All of the staff here, I’ve never felt any judgement from then or anything. All I’ve felt was honestly just love.”
“They all just constantly ask how we’re doing … and if there is anything they can do to help. Even if it’s just making sure we have some food in our stomachs, and a warm coffee when it’s cold out. It goes a long way. Like, a really long way, actually.”
For Deanna to pursue her studies, the warming centre has been essential, she says.
“Honestly, it’s probably the only reason why I’ve even gotten into VIU.”
For our neighbours without homes, something as simple as a place to sit and access the internet can be a huge barrier in changing their lives.
Warming centres like this one can give people a safe place to exist and be supported. And it’s changing lives.
“This place is making a far bigger difference than most people seem to have realized,” says Deanna.