A handful of people walked off the street and out of the cold into Regina’s new warm-up station around noon on Monday, marking the first day of its 24-hour operations.
The centre, located at 3510 5th Ave., is now open 24-7.
“This is a place for people to sit and to be warm and to eat and to have a good conversation with the people that can help them with whatever their basic needs are,” said Margaret Kisikaw-Piyesis, an ANHN employee and Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network CEO.
“When people walk through our doors we hope that they are fed mentally emotionally, physically and spiritually.”
Those same people are greeted with a warm welcome and a temperature check.
COVID-19 precautions are in place including contact tracing, masks, hand-sanitizer and physically distanced tables with prepared snacks placed at each chair.
Pandemic restrictions limit the capacity to 30 people at one time, but in the first week of it being open, the centre averaged about 70 drop-ins a night.
Kisikaw-Piyesis expects demand to grow with the expanded hours and lack of drop-in centres in the city.
“Some of the institutions and the agencies and systems that are funded to take care of people in crisis are sending people here in cabs, telling people to come here,” she said.
COVID-19 restrictions shuttered most of Regina’s drop-in centres that were connected to other businesses and organizations, simultaneously limiting who can access shelter programs in the city.
According to YWCA Regina CEO Melissa Coomber-Bendtsen, those in precarious situations or struggling with mental health and addictions are most impacted — either not qualifying for shelters or unable to follow COVID protocols.
“(Awasiw) is really the function of what most of our drop-in centres in the city are used for but, because most of them are closed, this is replacing that,” she said.
“This has also become a space for people who are experiencing addictions and need a safe space to sit where there are other people watching them and making sure that they’re OK.”
Awasiw is more than just a place to get out of the cold or to grab a cup of coffee. It offers care packages, clothing, food, traditional indigenous medicine and smudging.
Workers and volunteers also act as the first point of contact for those struggling with mental health and addictions.
“It has turned into a place where people sit here all night and when we phone to begin looking for services or programs or help for them, we have to wait until the morning,” Kisikaw-Piyesis said.
Coomber-Bendtsen says the pandemic highlights a number of flaws in the shelter system.
When it comes to the capacity to serve and house vulnerable people, she said “we’re not doing it in the right way.”
Congregating people in open-spaced shelters, while cramming cots next to one another isn’t pandemic-friendly, she said.
“Our system hasn’t been adequate enough to handle something like this.”
But a silver lining in it all is innovation. And it’s innovation that bred Awasiw.
Awasiw currently operates with the help of volunteers, donations and city funding.
Coomber-Bendtsen says they’ve applied for both provincial and federal funds to keep it running until at least the end of March.
Kisikaw-Piyesis says donations and volunteers are still needed, especially for the overnight shifts.