Winnipeg has entered its annual cold snap, and the concerns around public safety in freezing temperatures have become even more pressing in the time of COVID-19.
The Warming Centre, a partnership between the Spence Neighbourhood Association (SNA) and the West Central Women’s Resource Centre (WCWRC) was created to offer a safe space to warm up and fill gaps in community services. Located in a former gymnasium at the Magnus Eliason Recreation Centre, the space provides warmth, hot meals and winter gear for those in need, as well as a variety of outreach services.
Lorie English, the executive director of the WCWRC, says the partnership was also a response to the fact that the majority of daytime and overnight shelters had reduced their capacity significantly because of COVID-19 protocols.
“The most alarming piece of data that we heard in our sector calls was that 80 per cent of the daytime drop-in spaces had been closed,” English says. “The reduction of services was catastrophic to people who were unsheltered.”
It’s not just designated shelter spaces that have impacted people experiencing houselessness. Lin Howes-Barr, the executive director of the SNA, says many usually rely on shelter in other establishments throughout the year.
It’s “not just social-service agencies closing their doors, but also libraries, Tim Hortons, all these places that we know unsheltered folks depend on,” Howes-Barr says. She adds that a number of families who access the SNA’s services relied on school breakfast programs and are now struggling to fill the gap.
Howes-Barr says the Warming Centre offers much more than a space to warm up, receive a hot meal and get access to resources amid Winnipeg’s frigid winter season. It can also provide a sense of community between staff and visitors.
“While everyone has experienced mental-health challenges around isolating in the pandemic, I think when you live in poverty, those challenges are sort of exacerbated,” Howes-Barr says. “That need for community connection and that need to be supported is so critical.”
English and Howes-Barr say their frontline staff has played a crucial role in public safety and curbing the spread of COVID-19. While Howes-Barr says there is no way to empirically determine how many cases the organization has helped prevent, she says transporting people showing symptoms to testing sites and alternative isolation units has greatly prevented increased community transmission.
“We are the literal frontline. We are where people come first. We are the people they come back to,” English says. “I think our contribution to curbing the spread of COVID-19 has been significant.”
While the Warming Centre offers a place for community members to escape the cold, Howes-Barr says the connections and support from staff are what truly make the space warm.
“They’re making it warm in the truest sense of the word,” Howes-Barr says.
The Warming Centre is located at 430 Langside St. Winter gear and hygiene products can be donated by calling 204-333-9681 to arrange a drop-off time. Monetary donations can be made to the SNA or the WCWRC.
Published in Volume 75, Number 17 of The Uniter (February 3, 2021)