Volunteers open warming shelter in Drayton Valley amid rise in homelessness

The Warming Hearts Centre opened in December offering food and a place to rest when residents dealing with homelessness need reprieve from the elements. (Travis McEwan/CBC - image credit)
The Warming Hearts Centre opened in December offering food and a place to rest when residents dealing with homelessness need reprieve from the elements. (Travis McEwan/CBC - image credit)

A long-awaited day shelter has been a lifeline for homeless people in a small town in rural central Alberta.

While most of Alberta dealt with extreme cold temperatures in December, volunteers and advocates opened a warming centre day shelter for residents experiencing homelessness in the town of Drayton Valley, Alta., about 150 kilometres southwest of Edmonton.

In an industrial area, the Warming Hearts Centre offers food and a space to warm up from morning to early afternoon.

"The warming centre wants to be a host and a central location where we can provide multiple services, but we want to start with just a safe and secure home, a place for a warm meal and a warm place out of the cold," said Kenton Penner, a board member and volunteer with the centre.

Outside of Alberta's urban centres, smaller cities and towns have also been focused on finding solutions to a rising number of people dealing with homelessness.

A plan for a homeless shelter in the town of Athabasca, Alta., where close to 20 people are dealing with homelessness, is on hold after business owners raised concerns about its location and applicants pulled their development application.

In the City of Wetaskiwin, shelters have opened and closed after concerns voiced by residents and business owners about issues related to public disorder.

In Drayton Valley, a town of close to 7,000 people, local agencies estimate there are about 100 people experiencing homelessness, which is more than the community saw before the pandemic.

"You can hear it in the stories of the clients. They have shared how the pandemic has made things hard and it's been hard to get out of the hole that they hit with COVID," Penner said.

Travis McEwan/CBC
Travis McEwan/CBC

Wayne Meronowich, 46, has been attending the Warming Hearts Centre almost every day it's been open so far. He's been dealing with homelessness, off and on, for nearly a decade. He prefers the day shelter over some makeshift shacks and teepees he's used in the past.

"It's just a safe place to come and sleep through the day and instead of, you know, laying out in the middle of the street or whatever and bugging all the people uptown and it keeps us all together in another area," Meronwich said.

For residents who need overnight shelter, there are shelter pods that open in the evening but close at 9 a.m.

Travis McEwan/CBC
Travis McEwan/CBC

Kyden Mahon, 17, has attended the day shelter a few times since it opened. He's enjoyed the company and a place where he can stay as long as he wants until it closes. Mahon has been couch surfing, but he says he is happy to have options during the day and night when he needs them.

"I always have the shelter pods to bounce back on, too. I make it sound like I'm able to couch surf enough that it's not a problem, but that's just recently," he said. "I've kind of been blessed with a few couches, but whenever there's a dry streak in places to go, it's always the pods."

The goal is for the warming centre to eventually be open 24 hours a day, Penner said.

The board running the warming centre is working to add services to the day shelter, connecting clients with other agencies who can assist with mental health and addictions support along with long-term plans to find housing.