Cold weather shelter comes with pitfalls

Tyler Clarke
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Although she’s confident that the YWCA’s new cold weather shelter has saved lives, Donna Brooks admits that it has come with pitfalls.


Prince Albert Grand Council Grand Chief Ron Michel shakes hands with Prince Albert YWCA CEO Donna Brooks at the cold weather shelter’s launch on Dec. 20. 

“There’s a learning curve, so we’re learning what works and what doesn’t work,” the Prince Albert YWCA CEO said this week, adding, “For the most part it’s been quite positive.”

Spurred by last winter’s four freezing deaths in Prince Albert, the cold weather facility was set up in the YWCA Our House shelter basement, at the corner of 15th Street and First Avenue East.

The 10-cot facility opened on Dec. 23, and is available for homeless people to spend the nights seven days per week, from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.

Unlike the YWCA’s regular shelter beds, the cold weather shelter beds are open to people who are intoxicated.

“They have to be not a threat to themselves or others,” Brooks said, noting that if clients are too intoxicated or violent the police will be called.

As with any harm reduction strategy, there’s always the possibility of enabling negative behaviour whose side-effects are being lessened -- something Brooks said has taken place with the cold weather shelter.

“We’ve noticed people drinking on our property, and we won’t put up with that,” she said. “The police will be called.”

A rare occurrence prior to the cold weather shelter’s Dec. 23 launch, the presence of alcohol has become more common outside of the Our House shelter in recent days, she added.

“I guess they figured they could drink there and then have a place to sleep for the night,” she concluded. “I’m not sure, but that’s my guess.”

By vigilantly calling the police when open alcohol is found, Brooks hopes to prevent this from happening in the future.

The other downside to the program is its limited hours from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., which Brooks said is indicative of a greater need for such services in Prince Albert.

“It’s cold and they’re looking for a place to hang out, but we don’t have the staffing levels until 8 p.m.,” she said. “We don’t have the place for them to hang out before 8 p.m.

“There is a great need -- absolutely there’s a great need. In an ideal situation, there’d probably be a separate 24-hour facility for people, but it would have to be a separate building.”

A separate building is important because of the difference between regular Our House shelter clientele and those using the cold weather shelter downstairs.  

Unlike those using the cold weather shelter, regular Our House clientele are “trying to stay sober, they’re trying to improve their lives and make some positive choices,” Brooks said. “So, you don’t want to mix it, because it’s not fair -- it’s not fair to the other people.”

Although the cold weather shelter beds don’t meet the needs of Prince Albert, and do come with the downside of enabling negative behaviour, Brooks remains confident that it’s saved lives, and has therefore been worthwhile.

“It has been widely used, so on these cold nights we are running an occupancy count anywhere from seven to 10,” she said, adding that these are seven to 10 people per night who have been kept off the streets.

“It wouldn’t take much to freeze to death in the temperatures we’ve been experiencing.”

The cold weather shelter beds have been funded by the provincial government and the Northern Lights Community Development Corporation. 

Organizations: Our House, Northern Lights Community Development

Geographic location: 15th Street, First Avenue East

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