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‘It’s so wrong’: Inaction as temperature drops spurs Salmon Arm resident to set up sea can shelter

Concerned citizens provide heated space, porta potties for people without homes
A sea can with a generator, along with two porta potties, were delivered to 3rd Street SE on Tuesday night, Dec. 20, near the tent encampment on the east side of the street. (Martha Wickett-Salmon Arm Observer)

With temperatures heading towards -30 C, one Salmon Arm man couldn’t wait another day for an overnight emergency shelter.

Emphasizing he doesn’t want to be in the spotlight, the man spoke on condition that his name not be used.

He had been following news regarding the permanent closure of the Salvation Army’s Lighthouse emergency shelter in May 2022 and BC Housing’s months-long search for a site. He was upset to read that BC Housing recently said it was looking at all options.

“So as the ship is sinking, we’re investigating all options…,” he remarked.

“I know there’s a gentleman that said ‘I’ll do it. I’ve got the land, I’ll get it serviced. We’ll bring in portables.’ A few weeks we were looking into that. We could have had housing set up, the camp-style housing within three weeks…

“In our culture, we’ve decided BC Housing is responsible and I think they have 1,000 per cent dropped the ball. How is it we can have this over here (he points to the tent encampment) at minus 30. It’s wrong, it’s so wrong.”

He said he’s aware homelessness is a complex issue and there’s no pat answer.

“But this, this, is ridiculous.”

Read more: Funding in place but search for shelter site for those without homes so far fruitless

As the temperature grew colder earlier in the week he became more and more concerned. He checked out a possible place for an insulated sea can he had in his yard, but he said his spouse talked him out of it.

“She said, ‘the liability, we could lose everything.’

“That’s sad, that we’re liability-driven,” he said. “It’s about liability. Are you kidding me?”

He said one solution could be for the provincial government to set up a mechanism to cover liability so local groups could get together and solve such problems.

He was feeling conflicted that day and spoke to someone else who also warned of liability. He then called his son, who works with unhoused people in another community. His son said there’s not that much liability and he had to do it.

“Somebody’s got to do something.”

Read more: Lighthouse Shelter in Salmon Arm to close its doors permanently May 31

At that moment on Dec. 20, he received a call from Ben’s Towing. Manager Rachel Brown was calling at the end of her work day about something else, but he asked if the company’s truck was available. He explained what he was thinking and she didn’t hesitate. ‘We’re on it.’

Three employees worked on the project until after 9 that night, he said.

“They actually had to use a tow truck to pull the truck away from the trailer they needed, because that truck wouldn’t start. And then the container was frozen to the ground. But they got it down here. So they were just unbelievable. They got it down here, got it set up.”

Brown said the drivers are awesome and deserve credit.

“Everybody was pretty excited to do something like this.”

The 40-foot sea can container now sits across 3rd Street SE from the tent encampment, equipped with a generator. It contains chairs and couches, and people bring their own bedrolls.

The next need was portable toilets, which were provided thanks to another business person who also requested anonymity. He provided fuel for the generator as well.

“If that was somebody’s dog, it would have had a shelter,” he remarked.

Read more: As temperatures plummet, showers at warming centre in Salmon Arm appreciated

Read more: ‘They need to be in’: Woman who lived rough in Salmon Arm worried about people tenting

Dave Byers, who formerly worked at the Lighthouse shelter, also stepped up. He volunteered to oversee half of the 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. shift. He said about 12 people showed up Dec. 21, some coming and going. Neither drugs nor alcohol were permitted inside the sea can.

“We’re just doing what needs to be done. Everybody has dropped the ball. I can’t believe we seem to treat other sectors of our population and our dogs and cats, better than people living on the streets. I just can’t believe in Canada we came to this,” Byers said.

He emphasized the need for a permanent shelter that must be set up next year well before the cold weather hits.

BC Housing stated on Dec. 19 that it has signed a four-month lease for a shelter site that will open in early January 2023 and may have more than the 16 beds the former Lighthouse shelter had. More details are expected within a week.

Read more: Cold snap brings record-breaking temperature to Salmon Arm

Read more: ‘Winters were brutal:’ Former drug user urges compassion for people living rough in Salmon Arm

At the new Café at the Lighthouse, which is a warming centre in the former shelter building, patrons look happy. It’s currently open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. On Dec. 22, several people were sitting around a table which held an abundance of baked goods. Lieut. Joel Torrens of the Salvation Army noted the café has a fridge, microwave, television, piano, guitar, showers, laundry and a small hair salon.

Seated at the table is Dave Adams, who expressed his appreciation for the sea can.

“I think it’s highly commendable what they did. And they did it at their own risk… We’ve been asking the council there, are you going to open up a shelter? Before the snow even fell, all we’ve heard is, we’re talking about it, for months now. It’s bloody cold out there and it’s probably saving lives.”

Asked if he was comfortable in the sea can, he replied: “Comfortable, as in I didn’t freeze to death.”

He added he is grateful for community members.

“On the flip side, the amount of community spirit the town has shown in the last while has been impressive.”

A woman named Debbie said she had a good sleep in the sea can. She’s also grateful for the café.

“Oh yes. Where else would we go?”

She and others said they’re thankful for the firewood that’s been dropped off on the pallets by the tents, and they would appreciate more if it’s available.

The man who owns the sea can said he remembers well the wildfire of 1998 that threatened Salmon Arm. He recalls the unity of the community, working against a common enemy.

“We did what made sense, not just what was driven by liability concerns,” he said.

He’d like to see the community have a real conversation about how people can work together so Salmon Arm will have an emergency shelter.

“Or people will die.”

Read more: BC Housing confirms long-awaited lease signed for emergency shelter in Salmon Arm

Read more: Christmas lights, deep-fried turkeys: Salmon Arm firefighter warns of hazards
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A sea can with a generator, along with two porta potties, were delivered to 3rd Street SE on Tuesday night, Dec. 20, near the tent encampment on the east side of the street. (Martha Wickett-Salmon Arm Observer)

Martha Wickett

About the Author: Martha Wickett

came to Salmon Arm in May of 2004 to work at the Observer. I was looking for a change from the hustle and bustle of the Lower Mainland, where I had spent more than a decade working in community newspapers.
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