Out of the Cold brings Indigenous focus to Stuart Wood winter shelter

Indigenous lens at shelter

Indigenous-focused supports and programming are being provided to those seeking a warm bed at the former Stuart Wood elementary school thanks to Out of the Cold, the agency running the new shelter space alongside the Canadian Mental Health Association.

According to the 2021 Point in Time count, about 50 per cent of people who are homeless in Kamloops identify as Indigenous.

Dina Lambright, Out of the Cold’s executive director who is also Metis, said offering Indigenous programming — including bringing in drummers and elders — is the non-profit’s primary focus at Stuart Wood, something that helps provide a safe space and a “lifeline” for shelter guests.

“That is a shift in how people feel while they’re here. They see a friend, they see a like-minded person, they see someone from maybe their band, their culture, their reserve, and it’s safe,” she said.

“If someone throws you a lifeline, how do you feel? You kind of feel alive. So you’re touching into a bit of those emotions.”

The cold weather shelter is open until the end of March, with Out of the Cold responsible for arranging services and around-the-clock staffing on weekends — from 8 a.m. Saturday until 8 a.m. Monday.

Lambright said they have an elder on site each day over the weekend, and programming includes talking circles, medicine bag making, and helping people into recovery.

“We have two drummers coming in, and they are Secwepemc people, lovely people, and they’ll be here on site. They’re just here to hang out. We’ve got talking sticks, and they bring their drums, and we’ve got lots of medicine for burning. We usually cleanse the place at least once a day,” Lambright said.

Out of the Cold also provides homemade Indigenous foods. Lambright said Sunday’s menu included salmon sandwiches for lunch, and spaghetti with a beef and bison sauce for dinner.

She said she has just over a dozen staff working at Stuart Wood, who are trained in Indigenous history from pre-colonial contact to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“I’m an instructor for Aboriginal history at a local college, and I'm also Metis, I understand that stereotyping lens of how we treat Indigenous people. And so it's a passion of mine to ensure that we don't do that in this place,” Lambright said.

“[Staff] understand the ramifications of residential schools. …We're dealing with [survivor’s] children, and their children's children.”

Lambright said the Stuart Wood shelter has been overall successful so far, despite the challenges of setting up a comfortable space in an empty gymnasium — including installing essentials like internet — and late-December’s plunging temperatures, which froze pipes on the external washroom and shower building.

She said they started operating a mat program out of the shelter as temperatures dipped to -21 C at night, so no one would be turned away.

According to Lambright, this ushered in an additional challenge, as the staff began caring for more high-needs clients than those who stay in one of the 20 beds set up inside the gymnasium.

Lambright said staff ensure the facility is kept comfortable and safe. The main room housing guests has a TV with a DVD library, and many guests have decorated their bedroom pods with Christmas lights and photos of family and friends.

“One thing I think that the community forgets is homeless people have family too. Siblings, children, moms, aunts, uncles, friends, pets. And those things mean a lot to people that are homeless,” Lambright said.

The facility has laundry facilities, rooms holding donations of blankets, food, hygiene items, harm reduction kits and other essentials, as well as office spaces for both Out of the Cold and CMHA staff.

Lambright said it’s been a “good fit” working with CMHA, despite differences in weekday and weekend programming.

She said each agency has their own policies and procedures for how they deliver services, and they have had to work to understand each other’s differences, but ultimately their goal is the same — to ensure a comfortable, kind and safe space for those who need shelter.

“We're trying to keep same-same, but still kind of carving out our own niche too, so guests know that we're here and they can access Indigenous services on the weekends that’s safe and barrier free.”

After the Stuart Wood shelter is closed at the end of March, Lambright said she is looking for a new home for Out of the Cold.

She said she would love to operate year-round out of a space on the North Shore, near a main street but “off the beaten path.”

“Any kind of church basement, garage, anybody that’s got space,” Lambright said.

“We’ve been fairly successful in our proposal writing and support. …We are not going anywhere, and we are now in a position to negotiate spaces and we have a really solid infrastructure.”

Lambright said ultimately, it’s important to extend kindness to those who are living with mental health issues, addiction or homelessness.

“I had somebody say the other day, ‘I never though that I would end up here.’ It’s never your life goal to be homeless,” Lambright said.

“This kid, he had a job, working, not homeless. Two months later, finds himself homeless. You know, it’s not what anybody chooses in life. So I think that that kindness lens really has to shine a little brighter on people that are our sons and daughters.”

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