December’s Blessings in a Backpack campaign donated more than 200 backpacks to the guests of the Upper Room Mission in Vernon on Dec. 23, 2019. (Contributed)

Outpouring of community support for Vernon’s needy

Donations, generosity warm many experiencing homelessness during cold snap

As mercury plummeted in Vernon this month, the compassion and generosity of its residents warmed many in need, according to community agencies.

Turning Points Collaborative Society and the Upper Room Mission said they were both blown away by the response of Vernonites during the cold snap that froze the city two weeks ago.

“Before the cold snap hit, we put out a call for more blankets, hand-warmers and winter gear to help keep our guests warm,” URM media and events coordinator Parker Crook said.

“Only a few short hours later, we had donation after donation pour in through our front doors.

“The level of support in our community is truly remarkable.”

Josh Winquist, Turning Point’s director of public relations, agreed.

“Conversations can be contentious regarding people experiencing homelessness and the visible signs of homelessness,” he said. “But during this cold snap, all of that was put aside.

“It seemed like it didn’t matter who you are, or where you are coming from — people felt it.

“You couldn’t deny how brutally cold it was and they responded to it.”

Winquist shared stories of community agencies coming together to ensure needs were being met, and residents going the extra mile and offered hot chocolate and other hot beverages to those in need.

“It makes me really proud to live in a community like Vernon when you see a response like we did,” he said.

Turning Points anticipated the cold snap and knew extra spaces may be required in its emergency winter shelter. Five spots were opened on Jan. 8, 2020, increasing its capacity to 25.

Shortly after, Winquist said it became apparent more space was required.

“We were up against it,” he said.

“We were maxed with staff. We saw the need but we didn’t have enough staff.”

An additional seven spots were opened with help from the Canadian Mental Health Association.

“It proved to be more space than we need,” Winquist said, noting extra space was available throughout the week.

Empty beds does not necessarily equate to everyone being in a shelter, though, he said. Individuals experiencing homelessness or sleeping rough could have found alternative accommodations, but Winquist said when outreach workers checked on known sites, they were still established, but the site users weren’t around.

The cold snap also forced many indoors for medical treatment for cold-related illnesses, such as frost bite, chest colds, chapped skin and beyond.

“The staff at the outreach (Cammy LaFleur Street Outreach Clinic) found cold weather was really taking its toll on some of our community members who were either sleeping rough or experiencing homeless,” Winquist said.

But now that the temperatures are on the rise and the snow is melting, Winquist said new challenges present themselves.

“It’s not just the brutal cold these people have to contend with,” he said. “Now, they have to manage that everything is going to be soaking wet.”

“Any cold exposure lowers the immune system,” he said. “If your feet get wet and you can’t get dry, there’s little hope your medical condition will get better.”

Before the end of winter, agencies who rely on community support may require donations.

The Upper Room Mission is in need of ice melt, warm footwear, clean new socks and underwear.

Turning Points said blankets and warm winter weather gear are always in need and those interested in donating can reach out to the agency, or support others such as Canadian Mental Health Association and the Upper Room Mission.

“If anyone is experiencing a need for shelter, continue to check in with the shelters,” Winquist said. “We might not be able to get you in tonight but we might be able to get you in tomorrow.”

READ MORE: Nearly 12,000 children living in poverty throughout Okanagan: report

READ MORE: Dinner, backpacks served to needy in Vernon


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