B.C. Church Learns from Helping Homeless

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Gateway Community Christian Reformed Church in Abbotsford, B.C., has cots in its gymnasium. They’re there as the church opens for a second season as an extreme-weather shelter, offering refuge to people in their community without a home.

Gateway began hosting the 30-bed extreme weather shelter last winter in response to a request for additional shelters during inclement weather. The shelter operates when the City of Abbotsford calls an extreme weather alert: if there is a significant snowfall; if the outside temperature is below 32℉ (0⁰C); or if a rainfall warning is forecasted for the area.

Once opened, the site is active from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Members of the congregation volunteer to bring warm meals for the evenings; the 12-hour period is divided into shifts for onsite supervision.

When the church was approached about hosting the shelter, Marcel deRegt, pastor at Gateway, said, “We had to say yes. We are the church, how could we say no and make these people sleep outside?” 

In 2016, less than a week after agreeing to host the shelter, there were 30 people sleeping in the gym fairly often throughout the season. When asked about issues arising from having the shelter at the church, deRegt said, “Most of the issues were caused by our naiveté towards homelessness and the issues that come along with that. For the most part, the clients are very appreciative and respectful.”

This year, Gateway spent more time preparing for the extreme weather shelter. It appointed a coordinator, forged some community partnerships, and focused on educating the congregation about homelessness. “We have had numerous meetings and information sessions to not only educate the congregation but also to try and get them involved,” said shelter coordinator Jenny Vanderheide.

To operate the shelter for seven days, 35 volunteers are needed to stay at the church as overnight supervisors; another 21 volunteers are needed to bring food. 

Partnerships with BC Housing and the Salvation Army have also helped the church to serve in this way. BC Housing provides funding to help cover some of the costs associated with operating the shelter, including sleeping mats, breakfast foods, and part of the cost of washing all of the bedding. The Salvation Army, which runs a 24-bed year-round shelter a few blocks away, has offered advice to help Gateway be better equipped to serve the people who access its emergency shelter.

The congregation of Gateway recognizes that serving in this way won’t solve homelessness. “We are doing this to ensure that at least 30 people have a warm, dry, and safe place to rest their head at night,” deRegt said.

About the Author

Dan Veeneman works in the dairy industry as a ventilation specialist. He lives in Abbotsford, B.C., with his wife and three children. He is a member of Gateway Community Church.

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