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.
For Jake, the centre is helping him to save his life, he says.
“[I come here] to get resources to get me into treatment. And just for a nice, safe environment to hang out at, instead of being out in the street, where there is lots of temptation for drug use and all that stuff, because I have addictions issues,” he says.
When we asked how he got where he is now, Jake remembers back to 2018 when his girlfriend of three-and-a-half years broke up with him.
“I was clean, like off drugs for that whole time. And after that I was all heartbroken and I ended up using drugs as an escape.
“And it just got out of hand, and I quickly ended up just throwing everything away. Like I stopped paying my rent, I couldn’t look after my dog, I had to give my dog away. Pawned all my nice stuff.”
The choice was between living on the street or getting treatment. Jake chose treatment and got clean. He moved in with his mom and sister. But the pandemic came, and isolation made it harder for him to go to meetings and maintain his support network. He relapsed.
Jake became homeless and ended up at the Unitarian Shelter.
He’d never lived in a shelter before. There, he saw people that didn’t seem to ever want to stop using, and he saw what his future might be.
It all came to a head on a Sunday, says Jake, when the warming centre is closed. He and David, a friend of his (see previous warming shelter post) were sitting on some stairs downtown, watching videos on their phones. “We are freezing cold … trying to pass the day, and I was just like, ‘Holy, this is not what life is supposed to be like, right?”
“I just broke down … I started crying, like, ‘Wow, I’m thirty years old. How did I end up here?’ Like, this isn’t funny. It’s life and death for me.”
He thought back to some of the other addicts at the shelter, so far into their addictions, and he understood what his options were, he says. “Like, I’m going to die on the streets, or I need to do something and get better.”
“I want to get better. I’ve experienced life clean and sober and what it can be, and that’s what I want. So that’s what this place (the warming centre) is helping me to do … they are helping me get my life back on track.”
Earlier in the day before Jake sat down to talk with me, he was at another interview – applying to get help at a treatment centre.
To get to the interview, he had to check his phone to find out how to get there using public transit. So, he came to the warming centre to charge his phone.
Before that, he needed to print off the treatment centre’s application sheet, fill it out and fax it back to them. He doesn’t have a computer or a printer, but the warming centre does.
Even before deciding he wanted to do a treatment program again, the warming centre, run by SEIA, was helping him try and find housing.
It’s help with all these little things that become big barriers to support, and so much more that the warming centre offers, he says. Again, the basics are so important – shelter, access to a clean bathroom, and a place to exist and be away from drug use. The people are so supportive he says, and they create a positive environment.
“Without this place I would just be on the streets all day hanging out. Most likely getting into trouble.”
“It feels terrible, [being out on the street all day],” Jake says. “It’s like one of the worst feelings in the world, of having nowhere to go, especially on, like, a rainy day or something.
“You try and find an undercover spot and some security guard kicks you out, and looks at you like you’re a piece of shit, when all you are trying to do is maybe just sit there and watch Netflix on your phone and freaking hang out, stay dry, right?
“[And] there is just a lot more temptation out there, like you run into people, ‘Hey, you want any dope?’ That doesn’t happen here [at the warming centre].”
Jake praises the staff at the warming centre, saying they treat him like a human being, and are very supportive of his plan to get treatment.
He hopes the warming centre can stay open throughout the year, as there are many more people who need this kind of help, he says. He also hopes that better affordable housing can be made available, especially housing that separates those who are still using drugs and those who are trying to stop.
But he can’t say enough of what the warming centre is doing to help him.
“I would just say thanks for everything you’ve done,” he says to warming centre staff. “Literally you are helping … they’ve helped save my life … They are helping me get into this treatment centre. It’s life or death for me.”