In one corner of the United Church main hall, a man sits leaning against a wall playing soft guitar tunes. In another corner, someone is lying on a bench fast asleep.
In the middle, groups of people in layers of warm clothing relax around tables. They stir their coffee, chat amongst each other, and play board games. They’re all here for similar reasons — to stay safe, warm and be with others.
It’s been two weeks since this warming centre opened, after the United Church approached Ruth and Naomi’s to partner with them. The City of Chilliwack stepped in as well, to cover the cost of renting the space. The idea was to keep homeless and at-risk people off the streets and out of the elements during the day.
It only took a few days for word to spread and the number of visitors to start rising.
“Day one there was 22 here,” says Sharon Campbell, the main point person for the warming centre. “Day two there was 54.”
On Monday, after a weekend of heavy snowfall and brutal wind, there were just over 100 people who had come through their doors.
“They’re safe here,” Campbell says. There are five cots, and there is a bit of a hustle when the centre opens at 8:30 a.m. for those choice spots. Others curl up on the floor, against walls or slump in chairs to catch a bit of sleep. While some of the people who come to the centre have spent the night at shelters, others choose not to use shelters for various reasons.
There are about six regular volunteers, but Campbell is usually the one staffing the door, sitting at a table and greeting people as they come in. There have been a few families coming in, and plenty of couples, she says.
“I know most of them by name now,” she says. “They come in here to feel safe. They are people, too.”
She sets out hot chocolate, tea and coffee, and snacks when they have them. And at the end of the day, at about 4 p.m., the guests start filing out and the whole place is cleaned and set up for the church’s evening use.
There are pamphlets and “street cards” with contact information made available on the tables, but Campbell says they don’t push help on anyone. It’s up to the guests to initiate conversations.
Outside the centre on Monday, a man who stays at a shelter says the new service has made a big difference. Now, he says, those who use shelters only need to be outside from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., when the shelters open beds for the night.
The Ruth and Naomi Warming Centre will remain in operation until April 1, and is open Monday through Saturday from 8:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at United Church, at Spadina Avenue and Yale Road.