“This is the most calm, peaceful environment I’ve ever been in, as far as a shelter goes.”
Those are the strong words of endorsement from Barry Friesen – a patron of the winter shelter put on by The 5 and 2 Ministries Pastor Jesse Wegenast – after preparing his cot for a night of sleep.
The shelter is B.C.’s only provincially subsidized shelter with an age restriction that isn’t youth oriented, instead restricting itself to only offer space for those 50 years and older.
“Most of the people staying in there have been homeless in Abbotsford for a long time and are people who I’ve known for years. The older crowd definitely is just more laid back. You don’t have 30-year-olds, young guns running around trying to take advantage of people,” he said.
Whereas shelters often enforce strict rules to try to keep everybody safe and their items secure, Wegenast says next to none of that is needed in the 50-plus shelter. But enforcing rules, like a lights-out policy, wouldn’t be necessary even if they had a set rule.
When he asked patrons when they thought the lights should go out by, Wegenast says he expected to hear 11 p.m. or midnight. Instead, the answer was a resounding “as soon as possible,” and by 10 p.m. the lights were out.
The shelter offers just 15 bed spaces, the same number as it did for its first year of operation in the 2017-18 winter, and the space likely couldn’t take a significant increase. But Wegenast says there’s certainly demand for more – four people were turned away Monday night.
B.C. Housing spokesperson Laura Mathews said in a statement that the 5 and 2 Ministries shelter was full almost nightly last year, with an average occupancy rate of 90 per cent.
“This type of shelter could be needed in many communities around B.C. We know that people in their 50s and seniors are struggling with housing affordability, including rental rates that have been rising for years, which are edging people on fixed incomes closer to homelessness,” Mathews said, adding that B.C. Housing has increased eligibility and rates for rental assistance for low-income seniors.
Patrons at the shelter are also told they can miss one night a week at the shelter, offering wiggle room that many other shelters don’t or can’t accommodate. If they miss a night at the shelter, their cot could be filled for the night, either by someone waiting at the door or someone waiting at the door of another shelter. But importantly, they won’t lose their spot at the shelter the next night.
“I am a heart patient, and if I had to be in the hospital for a few days, I would not lose my bed,” Friesen said. “That’s important to know. … There was actually a time where I couldn’t get a spot and I stayed outside as a person with a heart condition, like blood clots and etc., etc., and all this special care that I needed.”
But that option to miss a day at the shelter offers securities beyond those with health conditions.
“Maybe they went out on a date, maybe they’re with a friend – any number of maybes. Maybe they messed up, maybe they have some family visiting,” Wegenast said.
“There are times when people get hung up when the snow gets really bad. … There are some people who are maybe unfit to make the trek (on icy sidewalks) from the Salvation Army where they spent the afternoon down to our shelter.”
Unlike most other shelters, this one is in space that’s put to use throughout the day, meaning it needs to be fully assembled and disassembled, effectively without a trace, every evening and morning.
When Wegenast arrives just before 7:40 p.m., the space is a blank slate, tucked away in a corner of the Mennonite Central Committee location on Gladys Avenue.
No more than a couple hundred square feet is is then converted from warehouse space to temporary winter shelter in about 20 minutes, in time to open its doors to patrons by 8 p.m.