Emergency warming shelter workers learn how to help vulnerable people in urgent crises

Volunteers and staff at an emergency warming centre are now equipped with new skills to help the most vulnerable people living in Winnipeg.

Marie-Christine Bruce volunteers with Just a Warm Sleep, which held a two-day non-violent crisis intervention workshop this weekend.

The training is meant to provide paid and unpaid contributors at the overnight centre with a toolkit to respond to someone in an urgent situation.

“And how to deal with that in a respectful, positive, safe manner for everybody involved,” Bruce said.

The emergency warming centre located at 109 Pulford St. in the Augustine United Church opens its doors every night between Jan. 1 and March 31. Anyone 18 and older who is looking for a warm place to sleep is welcome to spend the night there.

Just a Warm Sleep provides emergency overnight shelter during the winter season at Augustine United Church, which is located near the intersection of River Avenue and Osborne Street in Winnipeg. (Travis Golby/CBC)

People who use the warming centre come from a variety of backgrounds, including those suffering from a lack of affordable housing, experiencing mental health problems and using substances.

“Sometimes it can be a bit unpredictable,” Bruce said.

Occasionally people will arrive in an agitated state, or will become agitated when the building has already reached its capacity and they are directed elsewhere — the centre will redirect people to Main Street Project or the Salvation Army.

Bruce works one overnight shift, known as the “check-in shift” each week. Overall, she finds it rewarding.

“It’s work I really enjoy because you get to meet some very interesting, kind, generous, wonderful people. It actually usually goes very smoothly, which is not what people expect.”

Diffusing crisis

Laura Everett of 1JustCity — which runs the warming centre — teaches members how to diffuse a difficult situation when dealing with someone in a crisis.

Laura Everett of 1JustCity guides staff and volunteers through non-violent crisis intervention training to best equip them to respond to people’s complex needs. (Travis Golby/CBC)

“A lot of the skills that we go over are boundary setting, limit setting, making sure that we’re speaking in a way that calms people down, body language, all sorts of things that help when we’re dealing with people in crisis,” Everett said.

Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud, the executive director of 1JustCity, explained that the training reminds members how to remain calm and supportive of people who are struggling in urgent situations.

Blaikie Whitecloud has been involved with the non-profit organization since ground zero, and said the overnight shelter hit capacity several times during the long, frigid winter season of 2019.

And it’s only picking up. “We’re seeing an increase in need in the city,” she said.

Executive director Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud of 1JustCity says the overnight warming centre at 109 Pulford Street closes for the winter season on March 31. (Travis Golby/CBC)

One man has been at the warming centre nearly every night since it opened, Blaikie Whitecloud said.

The shelter has been seeing alarming levels of methamphetamine and opioid use.

“We are seeing people that can’t access other spaces because they’re not sober enough,” she said. “So they end up here.”

As a no-barrier space, visitors are also welcome to bring dogs and all of their belongings, including bags and shopping carts.

Bear Paw Security are on hand to assist staff and guests at the warming centre. Blaikie Whitecloud says they are well trained, and accustomed to working with people who have been using substances.

Mats are provided for people who use the emergency warming shelter at 109 Pulford St. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Intake at the emergency warming centre occurs nightly from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. on a first come, first served basis, for up to a maximum of 30 people per night. Guests are woken up by 6:30 a.m. and asked to leave by 7 a.m.

The centre closes for the winter season on March 31, and 1JustCity also operates three daytime drop-in spaces year-round.

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