Those who have lived and are living unsheltered tell us that living on the street or in the bush is about survival. Staying warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and staying dry are key aspects of that life.
But it’s extremely difficult when not everyone sees a person’s ability to do these things as essential.
On December 3, 2020, a fire broke out in the Wesley Street encampment where homeless residents had gathered, living in tents. Many local service providers were providing support from that central location.
Because of the dangers associated with the fire, Nanaimo Fire Rescue ordered the disbursement of people living in tents at Wesley Street, leaving folks without the items they need to survive. Many were left in the cold with nowhere to go in the winter months.
Things like tents, hardy sleeping bags, wool socks, waterproof jackets and waterproof bags for belongings were and still are desperately needed.
Two warming centres were opened thanks to United Way British Columbia – working with communities in BC’s Interior, Lower Mainland and Central & Northern Vancouver Island with funding from the Government of Canada’s Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy and support from the City of Nanaimo. They gave people a place to warm up and get food and support during the day. But the funding we had was not enough to expand overnight shelter space, or to make essential survival items available.
Knowing that, we got to work. Because, whenever there is a need, United Way British Columbia works to fill it. We’ve been doing community development work for years and so we’re able to respond to urgent needs, and make things happen for our community.
Through our central and northern Vancouver Island office’s connections with Nanaimo organizations, the City of Nanaimo and the federal government, United Way British Columbia was able to communicate the need in our community and gain further funding to address it.
The Government of Canada’s Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy provided an additional $100,000 in funding to get these essential items in the hands of those who need them – former residents of Wesley Street, and others without a home and in need.
Through this lobbying effort, the OutShop was born, with the administration of CMHA Mid-Island.
The items the OutShop provides are right now making an important difference in the lives of those living unsheltered, say the folks who are distributing the survival gear. They know from first-hand experience.
“It’s important for their survival,” says Melody, one of the two staff members at OutShop who have lived on the street before. “The island is damp. Sometimes even around four or five o’clock, they will say it’s cold. They need to be warm.”
“It’s working. It’s helping,” says Michelle of the OutShop. “You are warm if you have a sleeping bag, and you have a tent which covers you, and a tarp to put on it if it rains. Because, just having blankets and sleeping in the bush, you are going to get soaked, everything is going to get soaked, and you have nowhere to go dry it.”
“It’s survival every day to get what you need,” says Melody. “[And our unsheltered neighbours] love the fact that the shop is here. They are really grateful for what they get.”
The OutShop provides a variety of items, from tarps and tents to menstrual products, toiletries, socks, underwear, rain ponchos, first aid kits, granola bars, juice boxes and more.
Open just two days a week, the OutShop has provided supplies to more than 100 different people.
Other service agencies have been able to get supplies to hand out through the OutShop as well, says Kiersten Stewart, programs director at CMHA Mid-Island. “It’s low-barrier … homeless people in need can get the supplies that they need without a lot of hoops and strings. It fills a need that hasn’t previously been filled,” she says.
It’s making an enormous difference to people, say Michelle and Melody. “One guy cried, he was so grateful,” says Michelle. “He kept saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”
But the OutShop is temporary.
United Way British Columbia’s central and northern Vancouver Island office is proud to have secured the funding to get this innovative and much-needed program started. But that funding is set to run out.
“It needs support,” says Michelle.
“It definitely needs support – more funding to keep it going,” adds Melody. “That would be awesome.”
We know that what our unsheltered neighbours need is permanent housing and supports alongside it, and right now our community doesn’t have the capacity to provide that to everyone who needs it. But we’re working to create more partnerships and generate more funding to increase that capacity so that we can finally answer the need in our community.
But supporting new and innovative programs like OutShop that quickly provide for an immediate need is essential to keeping our unsheltered neighbours warm, dry and alive.