Photos by JEFF GAYE

The Cold Lake John Howard Society has opened its doors.

The organization’s location at 4801 51 Street has been operating a warming centre during the daytime, and as of Monday is also offering emergency overnight shelter for men who need safe place to stay overnight.

According to board program leader Greg Vardy, the society approached Cold Lake city council in August with a proposal the provide services for homeless men in the community. Their initial intention was to be open before the winter weather set in, but it has taken longer to secure funding, a location, staff, and volunteers.

“The board is made up of a lot of folks who are working within the community—social workers, support workers, librarians, people that are just engaging in the community,” Vardy said. “They identified that there was a gap in services in the community, namely that folks were having to sleep overnight outside in adverse conditions.”

The overnight shelter service is fairly spartan—a mat and a blanket in a warm room, and something to eat. It’s not a place to live, but a safe alternative to sleeping outside.

“The mat program is focused on the overnight portion of it. So if you if you’re in a position for whatever reason that you’re having to choose between sleeping outdoors in the cold and the elements, this is the alternative to that,” Vardy said. “It’s a very bare, basic service.

“It’s a safety-net type of approach where you come in, you do the check in, you do the screening, make sure that you know that you’re in a frame of mind that’s not going to jeopardize the safety of the other guests that are staying there or the staff. Safety and respect for everybody is definitely a guiding principle. 

“We get you a meal,
something warm to eat, something warm to drink, provide you with a blanket, and then it’s just, you know, get some rest and make yourself strong, pick yourself up a little bit and be able to kind of hit the ground running.”

The organization received its approval from the city on December 8, and has been in “a whirlwind” of getting ready and setting up, he said. 

“The first hurdle was finding a spot,” he said. “It had to be accessible for folks who have mobility issues, so no two-story locations.”

Then they had to hire staff. The location will run with one security staff and one support/social worker. The rest of the work will be done by volunteers.

The focus right now is on providing immediate help to individuals, but Vardy says the society’s board would like to expand the services and programming they offer during the day. “Phase two of what we’re looking at is essentially more of an outreach, in-house programming for those folks who are ready to take the next step,” he said.

To facilitate transparency and inclusion in its decision-making, the board will have its meetings in the main room, with everyone welcome to attend and participate. They have a wall in the room with poster-sized post-it notes where staff, volunteers, and guests can write ideas, comments, or suggestions.

Vardy said the board had been prepared to encounter some “not in my backyard” resistance to the idea, but instead found a great deal of support from the community. He said there was broad recognition that a program like this is needed.

He said the Cold Lake John Howard Society wants to encourage the community to keep supporting the project as it grows.

“We’re trying to engage the community together to try to provide those services,” he said. “As we get more volunteers, again, the intent is to move towards this place being open and available 24/7. Sometimes it’ll be a warming centre, sometimes there’ll be programming and services available here.”