January 7, 2021
When COVID-19 hit BC in March, everything changed.
For Vernon’s Turning Points Collaborative Society (TPCS), that meant adding physical distancing into daily life at the Society’s two emergency shelters. The Society needed more space to be able to offer emergency shelter services in a way that was safe for guests and staff.
The team at TPCS flew into action.
“We partnered with the City of Vernon and BC Housing right away. Not every municipality responded immediately, but our Mayor and Council certainly did,” says Randene Wejr, the society’s executive director.
“That’s how we found ourselves drawing up plans to adapt the Vernon Curling Club.”
Vernon became the first community in the province to combine its emergency shelters into a single Emergency Response Centre (ERC) to better protect clients and staff from the pandemic. TPCS has two shelters – Our Place and Gateway. They collapsed both shelters, plus the 25 additional mats they offer during emergency weather response, into one large space – the curling club.
Kelly Denis, the shelter’s site manager, explains that,"the committee we brought together to get the ERC up and running functioned like a mini think tank. We had a single purpose: how do we tackle this problem?"
But the curling club was only meant as a short-term solution. In late summer, knowing that the time at the curling club would end, TPCS quickly started on renovations and upgrades to an old industrial building on a site owned by BC Housing. In October, everything was transferred from the curling club to the new location at 2506 37 Avenue and the new location opened.
BC Housing sourced ‘pop-up’ sleeping pods. The pods allow clients the necessary physical distancing. They also offer a degree of individual privacy that most shelter clients haven’t previously experienced.
"What I have seen is more people are staying in here during the day versus leaving for the day" ,said Denis.
“They’re engaging with staff about various things they need help with. We have regularly 70 of our 86 people here for meals, which has been out of the norm; and asking to help with chores and cleaning. They have stated that they are comfortable. Some said it feels like a home environment. They’re happy to be with their friends versus separated at other shelters and it feels like family here.”
The pods are almost like bridge housing.
“Clients can organize their own space. Personal belongings are more secure, and tensions are eased,” says Wejr.
The amalgamation of the two shelters into one space initially caused some trepidation. Some were worried the ERC might concentrate problematic behaviour. But incidents have actually decreased.
“We saw an unexpected benefit of the move away from clients sharing rooms and into the pods: some behaviour, like hidden drug use, came out from behind closed doors where it could be more readily addressed by staff.”
An overdose prevention centre and peer supports are an integral part of the ERC. It’s no secret that the province continues to struggle with a second pandemic: an opioid crisis that is stealing more lives than COVID. There are encouraging signs that clients are increasingly willing to seek out harm reduction services.
But the lights were barely on at the new location and clients just settled into their pods, when a new challenge tested the careful planning. Late one Sunday afternoon, a small fire broke out in one of the admin offices several weeks after opening. It was quickly discovered, and the Vernon Fire Service responded immediately. The cause of the fire was determined to be the deteriorating electrical wiring from the 1960s. Most importantly, there were no injuries.
But what was most remarkable was the response. The evacuation plan was immediately enacted. By the end of the evening, clients had been relocated, were safe and warm, and enjoying pizza.
“This wasn’t just our incredible staff doing the amazing work they always do. This was a community response – services and support came from everywhere – it was astonishing,” said Wejr. “We’d like to give special thanks to the Vernon Fire Department and the City of Vernon for their incredible support. If there is a silver lining to this pandemic, the good relationships we knew we had, and the connections built over the years, have become even deeper.
After five days of repairs, including moving to diesel-powered generators while the entire electrical system was replaced, clients were back in the shelter that Friday.
“We knew our clients were resilient, but through this whole process they just kept getting up and moving forward,” Denis notes. “We learn from them every day.”