About Inn From The Cold

Friday, December 21, 2012

Three night activation 18-20 Dec 2012

Shelter closing tonight after three nights activation. Five guests last night, although for the first time in the past 3 seasons, we had no one for dinner. So volunteers and staff enjoyed a wonderful meal of rice, chicken, veggies and brownies.

One fellow arrived before dinner, but wanted to sleep and the next guest didn't arrive till 9 pm. This is one indicator that conditions are not that extreme. On the extremely cold nights, we have lineups at the door by 6 pm. So, while it's always a bit tough to close, our guests should be fine. Two of the fellows are heading back to Vancouver where there are lots of shelter spaces available and where they've stayed before our shelter opened (they prefer to stay here in Richmond). Another is returning to sleep in his semi-trailer cab (he's a long haul truck driver who lives out of his truck). And I'm not sure about the other two. Richmond house is full and at least one is waitlisted with them.

Thanks to volunteers who helped this activation: Elisabeth, Kathe, Jamie, Bon, Diane, Rusty, Poy-yuk, Evie, Vickie, Hal, Jerry, Don, Joan, Helen, Jean and Lynn.

Merry Christmas and best wishes. We'll be open any night during the holiday period that the weather is extreme. We've put aside some stuffing and gravy from Tuesdays' Community Meal and bring it out the nearest day to Christmas opening.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Dec 8, 9 activation

We're closing tonight after a two day activation. Seven guests last night, although 1 left after dinner and 2 arrived just before breakfast. Two people new to the shelter, including one woman, our first woman of this season.

We closed out with a mega-breakfast, like we've never served before and it was all consumed like I've never seen before. It started innocently enough -- we planned to serve porridge (three of the volunteers are from Scotland, so that was a given) and pancakes, but I then I decided to add a protein, so we scrambled a dozen eggs. I pretty much knew we'd be closing, so we emptied the fridge of leftovers: fried up potatoes and ham from last night, heated up a large bowl of baked beans from yesterday's breakfast, made toast of the bread that wouldn't survive another day. We set out a bowl of yogurt and berries from last night's desert and sliced oranges. After all that was polished off, someone asked if we had any more cheerios left from yesterday's breakfast! We did and served him a bowlful. So heartwarming to see the contented look on people's faces as they ate what for many would be their only hot meal of the day. Two left pushing shopping carts, two on bikes and the others on foot.

I just now finished my rounds of taking down the extreme weather posters at the bottle depots and saw two of our guests, one sitting on the sidewalk out front of Brighouse station, panhandling, and the other riding his bike with a few cans he'd already collected. I'm glad their bellies are full of nourishing food.

Thanks to everyone who participated the past two days: coming in and cooking, socializing, cleaning up and those standing by for the next time we open up -- your efforts and presence really makes a difference in our guests' lives.

Best wishes to all and Happy Hanukkah. (I will save my Merry Christmas, hoping we'll open again near the 25th.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Pausing to remember

Sunday, Nov 11 was one of those cold, grey days typical of Remembrance Day.   My wife Jan and I attended the service at the cenotaph, walking there from home to stand alongside people of all ages, outside in the elements,  pausing to remember the battles fought,  the lives lost,  and the peace we sometimes take for granted. It's a powerful experience that draws us back each year.

For many of those assembled, it was probably the coldest hour they'll spend all year.  Right after the ceremony, people hustled back to the warmth of their cars and homes.  I couldn't help thinking of our homeless citizens, knowing they spend the majority of their lives outside, battling the elements, battling poverty, with no warm home awaiting their return.    Many also battle addictions and mental illness, but unlike the wars our honoured vets fought, street battles rarely result in peace.  Lives are lost in the streets, not necessarily in the sense of death, but a loss of who they are or where they are going.  Fortunately, there's hope for those who wander the streets: hope they can find their way again through some life-altering change (housing is found, an addiction is in recovery, a mental illness stabilizes, a job is found) allowing them to return to a more normal life, with a warm home awaiting their return.

Until one of those life altering changes happens, one of the few hopes for a warm place to sleep is an extreme weather alert, and on this cold, wet Remembrance Day, that's exactly what happened.

Posters announcing the alert went up; shelter volunteers and staff were mustered; the furnace in the big hall at St Alban was fired up; sleeping mats and blankets were laid out and kitchen volunteers arrived and started filling the building with the aromas of homemade shepherd's pie and apple crumble.

So, at least for this one cold night in November, there was a warm place, a temporary home of sorts, for  a few of our street veterans.

I'm not suggesting we honour our street vets in the same way we honour our war vets, but I am suggesting we pause for a moment and remember the women and men who have no home and most likely are outside right now as you read this.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Familiar faces

Nov 1 marked the start of the extreme weather shelter season and we are all set to open once the temperature drops.   Most of our volunteers are returning from last year and we'll also be welcoming some new volunteers to the team -- we held an orientation session for new volunteers last week. Grace, our food coordinator, is back again, and all of our overnight staff and steering committee members are veterans from previous seasons.

In terms of returning guests, my expectation is that most guests will be new to the shelter this year, as was the case last season,  when 27 of the 36 guests we sheltered during the season were new.  At least nine of last year's guests are now in housing and likely more that I've lost touch with.  "Kip" has returned to work as a cook at a high-end restaurant at the airport.   "Dorothy" who had been living in a camper is now in a proper apartment.   "Will" is still in the basement suite he rented with "Maurice" last February, with a new roommate.  "Bud", "Buddy" and "Neil" are all sharing a house together with "Wally" from the previous season and two other formerly homeless individuals.   "Carlos" who used to be a teacher, and always wore a tie, sent us a nice letter thanking us for our hospitality along with a donation of $50 to the shelter.  

And sadly, two of last season's guests passed away earlier this year: "Maurice" at the age of 67 in February and "Milton" at the age of 56 in April.   Both were regulars at the shelter, both were an integral part of the community that formed each night we were open and both will be dearly missed.   We held a service for Maurice in March at St Alban Church and Milton's family held one for him, in June, in his hometown of London Ontario.  May they rest in peace.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Volunteer Training Workshop

Wed, Sept 26, we hosted a volunteer training workshop at the Richmond Food Bank.    The workshop familiarized volunteers with the community we serve, with an emphasis on communications, conflict resolution, mental health and addictions.

It was an excellent session, featuring five different speakers from local Richmond addictions and mental health organizations.

The session was originally aimed at volunteers for the new Drop-in Centre at St. Alban, but we decided the workshop would be extremely valuable to volunteers from organizations which target the same population as the drop-in centre.  So, we opened up the invite to volunteers from the Food Bank, where each week over 500 families file through this same room to pick up their groceries,  the weekly Community Meal at St Alban where over 150 folks are served dinner each week and the  Shelter  where dozens are given a warm place to sleep and hot meals each winter.

In all, over fifty volunteers filled the room and were treated to five excellent, heartfelt presentations from our guest speakers:

Barbara Bawlf - Vancouver Coastal Health/Richmond Mental Health Consumers and Friends
Rick Dubras - Richmond Addiction Services
Barbara Fee  - Canadian Mental Health Association
Danny Taylor - Richmond Addiction Services
Randy Vance - Vancouver Coastal Health

The evening was filled with compassion and warmth, something we hope our guests will feel at the shelter.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Stats for the 2011/2012 shelter season

March 31st marks the end of the Extreme Weather shelter season.  We'll reopen again once the season resumes in November.

The winter was milder than last year and even though we tried to push the boundaries of the extreme weather criteria so we'd open more, we were open only 29 nights compared to last year's 35. Even with less nights open, we saw almost as many unique individuals: 36 this year, compared to 37 last.    We welcomed four couples (only one couple last year) and eight women (up from four last year).  

We recorded 181 bed nights, and served over 500 meals.  The total number of guests per night was down by an average of one person per night.  Lower numbers for people needing shelter is a good thing, although one of our regular guests from last year is in long term care, so that person would have evened the averages.

At least four guests secured permanent housing this season and likely more that we don't know about.  Since we don't have a permanent presence, and most of our guests don't have a permanent location, it's hard to stay in touch to see how folks are doing.   Perhaps the most surprising statistic is that of the 36 people we saw this season, we only saw 9 of them last season.  So twenty-seven people stayed at the shelter for the first time ever.  It seems as people find homes, more find themselves homeless.

I'd like to thank all those who supported the shelter this season, those who donated food and cash and clothing, those who came to the shelter to make and serve incredible meals (64 folks helped here), our overnight staff and our committee members.   Together, you've helped make the Inn a very welcoming place, a place many of our guests thought of as home.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A shelter is not a home ... or is it?

I stole the title of this posting from a book by Ralph Nunez who runs several shelters for families in New York City.   Here at Inn from the Cold,  we try to provide basics of a home for our guests.  I sometimes tongue in cheek refer to our shelter as a Bed and Breakfast.  Certainly our homemade breakfasts are top notch, but the bed portion of the billing might charitably be described as spartan: individual mats on the floor of a large gym, each with a single Red Cross issued blanket.   But it's warm and safe and many of our guests tell us they've enjoyed their best night's sleep in a while.

Over the years, we've made a few improvements to the sleeping facility.  We now set up a folding chair beside each mat that helps define personal space, provides a place to hang belongings or sit away from the eating area.    And starting this year, we also offer each guest a pillow.  Dianne scrounged a dozen or so from a local hotel and each guest gets their own pillow that's theirs for the season.  We seal each pillow up in a bag with our guest's name on it each  each morning so they're ready for the next night.  Pillows offer our guests a comfortable sleep, but also a level of dignity they all deserve.

For the awake hours, we've added  a TV (thanks, Vic) and it's great to see our guests chilling in front of the tube, catching up on favourite shows like Coronation Street (who knew!?).  The TV does tend to squelch conversation so we don't bring it out every evening, but when we do it's a special treat.

Marcella generously donated a laptop and this is always popular, although the first night it was mostly used to check out bizarre YouTube videos of a Russian fellow demonstrating weapons, including a fully automatic shotgun.  I learned later that this wasn't as obscure as I thought: that shotgun video has been viewed over 23 million times on YouTube...   Since then, the laptop use has settled into people looking for jobs, connecting up with friends and family on Facebook and watching the hockey game on nights the Canucks games aren't broadcast on TV. And coincidentally, a young Russian guest was skyping with his family back in Russia.

We have a few other ideas to make the shelter more homelike, such as adding a shower, but is this where our efforts should be focussed?   Would we be better off working towards permanent housing for our guests, by finding willing landlords, lobbying elected officials etc?

I think we need to do both: improve our shelter, including more services and shelter space open year round, plus lobbying for more affordable housing and finding ways to transition our guests into this affordable housing.

Ralph Nunez says that "people don't like to hear it, but shelters are going to be the low-income housing of the future".   Our shelters are no comparison to what they have in New York city -- fantastic "Family Inns" with enrichment programs for the children, job clubs.  Here's a link with a short description of some of their services: Family Inn services and the main link to his website Homes for the Homeless.   The scale of homelessness in Richmond also has no comparison to New York city, where 10,000 families and 15,000 children live in shelters, and up to 100 new families apply for shelter each day.  But our problem should be more easily solvable.

Perhaps when your head nestles into your pillow tonight, you could give some thought as to how we could help create more homes for those who need a place, either by making our shelter more homelike, creating more shelter space or making more real homes available.  Let me know your ideas.

Monday, March 26, 2012

It takes a child

Bud's cart
Olivia and Dad Brian
One bitterly cold evening early in January, “Bud” was the first person through the door.  He told me his  hands were freezing because he'd lost his gloves and he'd spent the day pushing around his metal-handled shopping cart.   I told him it was his lucky day because someone special would be dropping by later that evening with gloves.    That someone special was twelve-year old Olivia who arrived with her Dad, Brian, loaded down with brand new gloves, hats and socks.    Olivia took on the project of providing clothing for our guests as a social action project for her upcoming Bat Mitzvah.  She heard about the shelter from her Bat Mitzvah teacher, Kathe, a longtime shelter volunteer.  Olivia first raised funds, then purchased the clothing from Mark's Work Wearhouse, who agreed to match the donations.

Many people are content to simply drop off their donations but I offered Olivia and Brian a tour and a chance to meet our guests, to which they replied with an enthusiastic "Yes!"  In we went.   Olivia offered gloves and socks to the guests, who were all gathered around the dinner table. All were gratefully received and Bud, in particular, was delighted with his new gloves.    She then fished out a fantastic fur-lined bomber hat that suited Bud perfectly.

I'm not sure who was smiling more -- Bud, with his gifts or Olivia for the joy of giving.

The next morning, we had more gifts for our guests, also from children.  The grade three students of another volunteer, Vilma, made scarves in December that were intended as Christmas gifts, but we were closed during Christmas and had just reopened, so I brought them out at breakfast to give out just before people head off into the day.   What made these handmade fleece scarves so special were the handcrafted cards, carefully coloured and featuring personalized messages.

The next time Vilma volunteered for a dinner shift, I thanked her for her thoughtfulness and how special it made everyone feel seeing the gifts and reading the messages of love from her students  But it was powerfully brought home when Bud walked in the door, sporting his new scarf tied around his neck.  Vilma explained to him that 8 year olds had made the scarves and how excited they'll be to learn that she met him wearing one of their scarves.

The saying goes that it takes a village to raise a child.   From what I've witnessed this season, I'd say it takes a child to help make a village, a village where people are caring and take action to show they care through simple gifts of kindness and love.

[update: I regularly see Bud at the Tuesday Community Meal at St Alban and as I write this (26 March) he's still looking great in what has become his trademark bomber hat and scarf.]

Saturday, February 4, 2012


"Paul" arrived one Saturday night in December, looking distraught and not speaking very coherently.  "House fire ... my fault ... lost everything."  He'd been wandering the streets for over 24 hours, had visited various churches, but couldn't find a place to stay.  Hugh and I sat him down at a table by himself, told him he could stay with us, he'd be well looked after.  We offered him something to drink or eat but he declined.   We were concerned about his mental state and considered calling 911 not for our safety but for his -- to get him to emergency where a mental health professional could assess his condition, but we decided to give him some time to settle in.   He asked for a glass of milk so he could take his medication and gradually he calmed down.

He pointed to his clothes and said his pants were too big for him --  he had to hold them up with one hand to keep them from falling down -- and his coat that was tattered and too short in the sleeves.    We offered to find him some better clothing, but he only wanted a better fitting pair of jeans -- he said he didn't want to look too good when he went to see his worker Monday morning -- he also took a belt that Wendy from our clothing committee had just brought in.

Paul was a model guest: very gentle, respectful, undemanding.  He gradually accepted better clothing and a shaving kit and looked like a changed man.  He turned out to be a big fan of the NY Times crossword puzzles, which he worked on most evenings.  He ended up staying with us five straight nights, until the weather alert was deactivated and we closed.

I don't know if the fire Paul talked about really happened but we wouldn't have treated him any differently either way.  Most people who come through our doors have suffered a loss: lost jobs, lost relationships, lost homes, loss of sobriety. Some, like Paul, arrive with nothing but the clothes they're wearing, others struggle in with all their possessions.  But almost all arrived weighed down by greater losses: loss of dignity, loss of direction, loss of spirit.

The shelter offers a brief respite from the pains of loss: a warm place to call home for a few nights, clothing and hygiene kits to clean up with, and good food and companionship to nourish and strengthen the body and spirit.   Like Paul, some of our guests have been wandering around somewhat aimlessly for quite a period of time - 24 hours in Paul's case, years for others.  I hope the brief respite we offer affords some the opportunity to reflect on the roads they've taken that has led them to where they are today.  I hope they leave with a little more strength than when they arrived, strength to simply get them through another day, or strength to hold on till they get that one break they need, or strength to choose a different road than the one that led them to our front door.

We didn't see Paul again when we reopened the shelter for the eleven night stretch in January, so I hope he's doing real well.  We did see many familiar returning faces, some I was just thankful to see they were still alive, but two I was happy to see them, but sad that it was back at the shelter: "Jack" who seemed so determined in December to get back on the sobriety wagon and  "Kip" who'd stayed with us the previous season, landed a job, found an apartment, but through no apparent fault of his own, had lost it all again just after Christmas.  It's a long journey, requiring patience and strength and a few breaks.  I'm thankful that our shelter exists and that we are able to offer each guest a little break on their journey.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Shelter closing for a while

Well, the milder weather has washed away the snow, making the lawns green again and closing the shelter.  

I want to thank everyone for helping to make the past eleven nights so special for the eighteeen different people who spent the night with us (and the four who just came for a meal).   During this activation we offered a few new services, thanks to some kind donations:  TV, a laptop and pillows.  The TV is very popular and we're going to bring it out now and again.    We don't want it out every night because it tends to stifle conversation and socialization but it's a nice change of pace.  The laptop is also very popular, checking emails, facebook, searching for housing and at least two are job hunting, including 1 fellow who landed two interviews at restaurants in Richmond (he's an experienced cook).    We have one young man from Russia staying with us and he was up most of one night chatting with his family back home using the laptop.

The highlight of the run was that two of our regulars will no longer be regular guests -- they moved into a suite and you can imagine how happy they are.   Again, thanks to the kindness of the shelter community, they are fully equipped with all the essentials (and more) and are enjoying the comforts of their new home.  

Sunday, January 15, 2012


I remember a joke I first heard in elementary school.    Some monks lived together in a monastery in complete silence, aside from once each year, one monk could say one sentence.   This annual event was eagerly awaited.   The first year, monk 1 says "I love the porridge".  Second year, the next monk stands up and says "I hate the porridge."   Monk 3, a year later, says "I can't stand the constant bickering about the porridge".   It was a bit like that this morning at the shelter.

"Bobby" has stayed with us 3 nights this year.   I'm not counting the night he arrived very late for dinner.  Very late: ten to eight ... in the morning.   He looked incredibly disshevelled, barely moving.  But he devoured a plate we heated up for him and managed to leave with someone else's lunch all before 8 am.  Last night, he arrived early, clean shaven, talkative and I didn't recognize him at first.   This morning he was clearly in a foul mood and came up to the pass through and asked why we put salt in the porridge. "It was horrible.  Who puts salt in porridge?"  He seemed very upset.

When I told him it was time to leave, he still looked sullen.  I asked if he'd had plans for the day, if he'd like me to put his coffee in a paper cup so he could take it with him.  No response.  He just got up and left.    Ten minutes later, I saw he was back at the kitchen door -- the one that goes to the dining hall that is normally closed but was propped open as we were cleaning up, so I hustled over to see what was going on.  He leaned in and said "Sorry for my behaviour, it was childish of me".  And off he went.

I related this story to my wife Jan afterwards and she reminded me  that our Scottish brother-in-law Jim loved porridge and he always wanted it with salt -- never sugar.  Apparently this is common in Scotland.  Jim never understood why we put sugar on porridge.

Anyway, if the biggest issue of the day is whether someone likes or hates the porridge it's going to be a very good day.

Thanks to Wendy, Luc and Beth for serving up a great breakfast (we also offered scrambled eggs and toast) and making fabulous barbecued chicken sandwiches for lunch.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

First snow of the season

We got a fresh blanket of snow overnight -- enough to warrant shovelling the walk outside the church (at least before most of it melted).  Shovelling snow in lotus land is rare enough that I like doing it, but I thought I'd just set the snow shovel outside the door and see what happens.   I was pleased to look out a few minutes later to see "Milton" doing the sidewalk, still dark out, before he'd had breakfast.    He's got a gruff exterior and manner, but a big heart.       He's the kind of guy that when he sees something that needs doing, he does it.  After the Community Meal on Tuesday night, he also picked up the big broom and swept the whole dining hall.

Unfortunately, he also tends to pick up things that don't belong to him, and this has got him into trouble with the law.  He's one of those people known as "known to the police", so he gets stopped a lot just to make sure he's doing well.

He told me he spent last winter in a minimum security camp where he worked as a janitor.  I realized then that I had visited his home -- a tarped area hidden behind an abandoned industrial building near Budget Brake and Muffler on No. 3 Rd.   When I went in to get some brake work done the owner told me about a homeless guy who lived nearby who they'd pretty much adopted.  They'd let him sit in the waiting area, offer him coffee and the mechanics and owner would also bring food in for him.    But they hadn't seen him in quite a while and were worried about him. So I went over with one of the mechanics to his spot to check up on him.   The tarp had collapsed and his meagre belongings were covered in snow.  It was a disturbing sight, but we were relieved to have not found a body.  I learned from the RCMP bike squad later, that he'd been incarcerated for petty theft.  

The building where Milton lived is long since torn down and he now bunks down under a tarp somewhere else when the shelter isn't open.

Doing time for a wrongdoing, then getting out is like starting over with a clean sheet of paper, like a blanket of freshly fallen snow.  Watching Milton shovelling the sidewalk this morning from a distance, there are no signs of his gruffness or his past -- all you can see is a man with a big heart.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A refreshing cup of tea

Most of our shelter guests are coffee drinkers.   This winter, however,  two of our guests prefer tea so we've started brewing up a pot of tea each evening -- how civilized.

Aside from their preference for tea, "Jack" and "Ben" don't seem to have a lot in common.  They were born in different countries, have different cultural and religious backgrounds.  One's a vegetarian; the other doesn't like vegetables.  Jack has a long history of addiction to drugs.  Ben has no signs of substance abuse.

Jack was most recently in a residential recovery program in Vancouver's Union Gospel Mission, had been clean and sober for several weeks, but relapsed, so had to leave.    He wants to get back on the wagon and was so impressed with the progress he made at the UGM that he's planning to find a room in the Downtown Eastside so he can have easy access to the UGM during the day.  He knows the perils of the DTES, but feels it's better for him to be away from his buddies and triggers in Richmond.

Ben is well read, well educated and speaks persuasively on many topics, ranging from philosophy to alternate energies and homelessness.  Ben spends his days in the library, researching alternative energies and is planning to start a company in this area.  After that, he plans to move back to his country of birth where his parents and siblings live.

Ben intended to just stay one night with us, saying he was hoping to return to a "5 star" shelter in Surrey he's stayed at before: Hyland House.   (I've visited Hyland House and it's a model facility, purpose built for short and long term residents, including emergency shelter and supported housing.  It has individual rooms, showers, laundry, employment programs etc etc. It's run by Peter Fedos, who delivered us shelter training Nov 2010).  He returned the next night and the next and he ended up staying with us all six nights that we were open last activation.  He enjoyed his time at the shelter and told us that he was very impressed with the kindness we showed and the service we offered, despite our limited facilities.

So two very different individuals who came to us by very different paths, but both arrived on our doorstep with not much more than the clothes on their backs.  The most important thing they have in common is they each have a plan for a path forward, a path that could change their lives.  Quite different plans, but both very ambitious and both will require a lot of inner strength.

We closed up 15 Dec after six nights activation and haven't been open since.   That final morning at breakfast, I told our guests we most likely would be closing for a while.   Most left better fed, better clothed,  refreshed and ready to face another day.  For some, it will be back to same old same old.  For Jack and Ben, I'm hoping it'll be steps forward on their new paths.

I said farewell to Jack wished him well and I offered to drop Ben off at the library. We took the scenic route, dropping off the blankets at the laudromat and an overnight staffer at his home, so had more time to chat.  Ben shared his story of his own tragic path to poverty.  Then he explained that in his home country, they have far more and far worse poverty than in Canada yet there are no homeless shelters.  They don't need them.  Poor people are looked after by their extended families and neighbours.

I gave Ben a 2 zone bus ticket so he could get to Surrey and see if they had room for him at Hyland House and dropped him off at the library just before they opened.

I'm hoping these two fine, respectful gentleman developed a little more inner strength during their stay with us.  Perhaps those refreshing cups of tea helped.

I haven't seen or heard from Jack or Ben since.