COLIN CORNEAU/BRANDON SUN
Jake Hamm, a board member with the Helping Hands soup kitchen, looks over the newest location of the city’s emergency homeless shelter.
Chris Stevenson carries all of his belongings with him in a large black backpack and is no stranger to sleeping outside, even through some of Manitoba’s brutal winter temperatures.
Stevenson relocated to Brandon from Winnipeg last month and recently completed a stint in rehab for alcohol addiction.
He’s also been homeless for the past two years, and with this month’s cold snap, was in desperate need of an emergency shelter.
Helping Hands opened its doors for the first time Tuesday night, providing some of Brandon’s homeless shelter from the cold. Stevenson was among the first three people to spend last night in Brandon’s newly relocated emergency homeless shelter.
"I think for the people on the street to have a warm place to stay ... it’s like winning the lottery," Helping Hands board member Jake Hamm said.
The Safe and Warm program — a joint effort between Helping Hands Soup Kitchen, the Salvation Army, local churches, Samaritan House Ministries, Prairie Mountain Health and the Canadian Mental Health Association — has been scrambling to secure funding this season.
Hamm said they wanted to have the shelter open last week when the weather turned frigid, but couldn’t due to lack of funds.
A small amount of funding the committee already secured, combined with contributions from local businesses and private donors, should carry the shelter through the next couple of weeks, Hamm said.
They also plan to present to city council in upcoming weeks in hopes of receiving more emergency funding. An application for a grant through the United Way has also been submitted on behalf of the program.
The majority of the cost comes from hiring security. Hiring two guards to work 12-hour shifts costs $432 per night, which adds up to more than $3,000 a week. Security guards need to be on hand so the shelter coincides with Workplace Safety and Health guidelines, Hamm said.
"We want to make sure it’s a safe environment," he said. "If there’s an illness, anything can happen ... There’s a fair amount of unknowns that we don’t know about."
The only way around hiring security, Hamm said, is if volunteers have some sort of police or military training.
Having security guards on site as a requirement isn’t unheard of at homeless shelters. Winnipeg’s Siloam Mission emergency overnight shelter holds 110 beds as well as a five-bed family room for short-term emergency use. A Siloam spokesperson told the Sun the shelter has three staff on-site throughout the night.
Applications for Brandon’s emergency shelter, which sleeps 10, were being accepted throughout the day Tuesday at 7th Street Health Access Centre.
Although only three people took advantage of the shelter on its opening night, Brandon Regional Health Authority housing resource worker Chris Reid said it’s just a matter of time before it’s full every other night.
"This is for our overflow right now," Reid said. "This is the first day we’ve opened it so word will get out."
Last year, the shelter program worked with local churches on a rotating basis. Having the shelter in the downtown hub this year is more convenient for those in need, Reid said.
"It’s great because so many of our resources are close by."
Sitting on a couch inside the access centre while waiting to walk over to the shelter, Stevenson was calmly pacing through one of "The Hunger Games" novels on a mobile reading device.
"I probably just would have found a cubby hole somewhere, out of the wind," he said when asked where he would have gone if it wasn’t for the shelter. "It’s not too cold when you’re out of the wind."
Wearing what looked like three sweatshirts underneath a worn black leather jacket, he said the best thing to do in this weather is layer on as much clothing as you can and find some blankets.
"When you have four or five blankets between three people, you can stay warm."
Stevenson is now on the waiting list for more permanent accommodations. He said it’s tough to put into words what it’s like not knowing where he’ll be sleeping every night.
"In Winnipeg, I knew so many people, so many places. In Brandon, it’s all new to me."
He hopes to find a place soon and then look into apprenticeship programs here in Brandon.
Helping Hands emergency shelter will now be open 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. on days when the temperature dips below -15 C with the wind chill. Those in need have to get to the 7th Street Health Access Centre to use the shelter. The access centre is open from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. every day.
Those interested in donating money to the shelter can do so by giving to the Safe and Warm fund. Cheques should be made out to Samaritan House Ministries.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 11, 2013