The sunlight in Salmon Arm is deceiving on this bright, blue-sky afternoon of Dec. 19.
Although the sun’s rays look warm and inviting, the temperature is cold, beyond freezing, about -20 C.
A man stands outside the tent encampment on Third Street SE across from the former Salvation Army Lighthouse Emergency Shelter, which is now the Café at the Lighthouse and the Market at the Lighthouse.
The Café is open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., providing a place where people can get warm, have something to eat, take a shower and do laundry. When more volunteers become available, the Salvation Army says it will open through the weekends.
The camper, who doesn’t provide his name, said he has been living rough in Salmon Arm since the summer. Although he was born in Salmon Arm, he’s been in Calgary for the past 20 or so years. He has a place in Calgary, but he’s renting it out to a family, he said. The combination of a divorce, losing his driver’s licence and the scarcity of housing led to him living rough in Salmon Arm.
Just before the interview, about three vehicles have driven up, at least one driver leaving behind what looked like a large bag of clothing. Outside the tents are wooden pallets with bags sitting on them, possibly also donations. Piles of wood are split and sitting next to a fire ring.
Asked how people are doing, he said everyone has a different experience. He points out one woman is 65. He estimates about 12 people are staying in the tents, part of a total of 20 to 30 people living outside in Salmon Arm.
He said he doesn’t need as much as some people because he still has an income. He said he lost his driver’s licence about a year ago. He’s now able to get it back so he expects he will be able to leave town, although he’s not sure what he’ll do.
With regard to staying warm, people are doing their best, he said.
“But I don’t think they’re warm all the time.”
Hands and feet get cold, and having a fire going helps.
Regarding the Salvation Army’s Café at the Lighthouse across the street, he said he’s appreciated going there for showers.
“It’s something I hadn’t really considered before. Washrooms and showers. They close all the public washrooms in town, they remove all the plugs so you can’t charge your cell phone. There are no pay phones anymore, so you can’t even phone if there’s an emergency. They make it very difficult for people to survive.”
He charges his phone at the Café but he said “at this temperature, batteries are literally sucked dry.” He realizes not everyone can afford to share their electricity, but for some of the bigger businesses, he said it shouldn’t affect them to leave a plug outside for charging phones.
“They delete the plugs outside. A lot of people are drug users. If there’s an emergency, they can’t call 911.”
On the weekends, “people do what they have to do. Go into the mall and wait till they get kicked out. Everyone does something different. Some people have friends they can visit, but you don’t want to wear out your welcome. It’s pretty difficult.”
He wonders about the former emergency shelters.
“They have this building here, a perfectly functional building that they don’t use. The one on the other side of town, they don’t use. It seems strange to me.
“They complain about this (campsite) being an eyesore, and I can see it being an eyesore, but what else are people supposed to do?”
Coun. Louise Wallace Richmond, chair of the city’s social impact advisory committee, said she thinks about the situation constantly.
She, like many others, is awaiting word from BC Housing.
BC Housing has funds for a shelter and the Canadian Mental Health Association, Shuswap Revelstoke, agreed to be the service provider after the Salvation Army closed its emergency shelter permanently. The hold-up, says BC Housing, is securing a suitable location.
Wallace Richmond also pointed to staffing. She noted that providing shelter for people who are without homes can be the most difficult in the housing spectrum, but it falls to volunteers, charities and communities of faith.
She pointed to the need for long-term solutions. In the meantime, however, she said both an emergency shelter and a warming centre are essential. She hopes that with more volunteers and donations, the Salvation Army’s warming centre hours can be extended to seven days a week.
Mayor Alan Harrison commented on Dec. 2 on the lack of an emergency shelter.
“We share the community’s concern regarding lack of a homeless shelter, especially as the weather gets colder. We are in constant communications with BC Housing, who assure us they are actively working on a shelter location.”
He said it is BC Housing’s mandate to provide shelters, to fund them and to hire and fund an operator that manages the shelter.
“On the positive side, the Salvation Army has really stepped up in providing a daytime warming centre with amenities… There are also several faith-based groups who are providing meals and working on warming centres.”
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