Homeless city resident pairs with Vancouver realtor to open new emergency warming shelter

·3 min read

One man is a West Side realtor whose clients buy and sell homes worth millions. The other lives only with what he can carry on his bike trailer and spends a lot of time hunting down free internet so he can update the blog he keeps about being homeless on the streets of Vancouver.

Together, they've formed an unlikely partnership to help open a temporary warming shelter where others living on the street can escape the cold winter nights.

Located in the Odd Fellows Hall, a heritage building in the city's Fairview neighbourhood, it is one of very few such spaces serving people on the West Side.

And it's a nice space.

Realtor Walter Wells is a member of the Vancouver Odd Fellows, a non-political and non-sectarian international fraternal order. A year ago, he read a post by homeless blogger Stanley Woodvine about the perils of being outside in bad weather.

Wells said the post hit him hard.

"I had a vision of people freezing almost literally on our doorstep," said Wells. "It just seemed so real to me. So personal."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

So, he approached the other Odd Fellows with the idea of opening the doors of their cherished 99-year-old Fairview Hall at 1443 West Eighth Ave.

Woodvine says the space makes for a welcome change compared to many shelter spaces he has seen during his 16 years of being homeless.

"Compared to the low-ceiling buildings, and none of this is fluorescent lighting, a nice hardware floor," said Stanley Woodvine. "I come into a space like this and I want to quiet down."

The Vancouver Odd Fellows' website says the group primarily exists for friendship and to help others. It also raises money and donates it to local charities. But Wells said some members were reluctant to have strangers inside the tony hall, with its throne-like chairs and walls of historical photographs.

"You don't always get 100 per cent buy-in," he said, adding it pushed him to take every effort to make sure the first week of being open to those in need runs smoothly.

"So far, it's been great," said Wells.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

The mats on the floor are spaced about two metres apart and currently have enough room for 10 people to sleep comfortably. It doesn't accept grocery carts or pets and will only be open on Vancouver's coldest nights.

For Woodvine, it is important not just because it's the first cold weather shelter in the immediate area that he is aware of, but also because Wells took it upon himself to help.

"Having people in your society who do not turn away, who face you and treat you as a human being and don't pretend you're not there, that's really important for homeless' people's self esteem," said Woodvine.

"The Odd Fellows are simply saying, 'Look you're people. You shouldn't be cold. You shouldn't be wet. So come on in,'" he added.

The Odd Fellows have worked with the City of Vancouver to set up and operate the space.

Tap below to listen to Walter Wells and Stanley Woodvine on CBC's The Early Edition: