A non-profit that helped keep people warm during this winter’s coldest days is asking the City of Nanaimo for money to try to extend the service.
Jovan Johnson, executive director of Risebridge, spoke at a finance and audit committee meeting Wednesday, Jan. 19, to ask Nanaimo city councillors to approve up to $55,000 so that her organization can operate its Warmreach warming centre for another two months.
Risebridge created a warming tent when another warming centre downtown abruptly closed in December, then moved into a space on Terminal Avenue. Johnson said 300 individuals have accessed the centre, with an average of 94 people per day. She said in addition to warmth, the centre has provided social service navigation, first aid and harm reduction.
“We have had no incidences, we have had no RCMP reports or calls, we have had support from neighbouring businesses … we’ve had lots of great support from outreach teams and other organizations,” she said.
Johnson said there is enough social service outreach in Nanaimo’s downtown, but there aren’t enough open doors, and said Warmreach has filled gaps at times of day when shelters and other warming centres are closed.
“What are we going to do for the next six weeks with the crisis situation that we currently have at hand? What is available?” she asked. “When the weather drops again and our doors are forced to close, are we OK with that as a city?”
City councillors voted in favour of Coun. Ben Geselbrach’s motion to direct staff to meet with Risebridge and prepare a report on options, and council will discuss the funding request Feb. 7.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that there is a need and there are gaps in current servicing, which I think exacerbate the problems that we are facing in terms of servicing and keeping individuals healthy through these difficult times,” he said.
Coun. Erin Hemmens said Risebridge is doing “very good and very necessary work” in the community, but added that there are other organizations doing good work, too, and she expressed reservations that funding the operations of the warming centre would set a “difficult precedent.”
Mayor Leonard Krog agreed, suggesting that if the city were to decide to fund such a service, a more fair approach would be to invite any community organization the chance to provide that service.
“The fact that Risebridge … comes to us and says, ‘we’ve been doing some good work, now give us some money very quickly, please,’ frankly, I’m not moved by that argument,” he said.
The mayor also brought up Risebridge’s recent criticism of the City of Nanaimo following the dismantling of a homeless encampment in the Bastion Street parkade.
“I am not fond of an organization that thinks it appropriate to issue a release – and then not to remove it or apologize for it – that accuses people who work for us and RCMP members of stealing,” Krog said. “It is not decisive for me, but it does indicate, if I may phrase it this way, a certain lack of sensitivity and maturity.”
The finance committee voted 7-1 to ask for a staff report on the matter. Coun. Jim Turley was opposed and Coun. Sheryl Armstrong was absent.
Rick Hyne, operating officer for Crankshaw Holding, which owns the property where the warming centre has been operating, sent correspondence to city councillors Thursday, Jan. 20, advising that the warming centre will close on Friday, Jan. 21.
“We [are] acting due to the increases in complaints and concerns about the safety of our tenants and their staff…” he wrote. “By shutting down the warming centre we are removing the blame that it was the warming centre’s fault.”