Starting on Jan. 12, Central United Church in Calgary’s downtown core is being turned into an overnight warming shelter, a one of its kind pilot solution to address a deadly cold snap for Calgary’s unhoused community.

The warming centre will be open at the Central United Church from 4 p.m., until approximately 10 a.m. on Saturday, Jan 13—the projected coldest overnight period during the cold snap.

The centre was a pilot initiative of local grassroots homeless sector organizations BeTheChangeYYC, Water Warriors, Crazy Indians Brotherhood, Angels in Action, Soup Sisters Calgary, and the Central United Church.

The goal, said Chaz Smith, CEO of BeTheChangeYYC, was to address an underserved group of Calgary’s unhoused community: Married couples who don’t want to be separated at emergency shelters, families with children, unhoused individuals with pets, and individuals who for whatever reason have bars or barriers to using emergency shelters.

“Shelters are flooded full of people right now. They’re not always a place where everyone can go,” said Smith.

“This will be a unique place because it’s all grassroots initiatives that are coming together. We have two indigenous-led organizations, so it’ll be culturally sensitive. We have medical staff on site the entire time, including a paramedic, nurse, and a doctor for frostbite treatment and frostbite prevention.”

Those latter conditions are among those that the overnight warming shelter is aiming to prevent, said Smith.

“People are consistently targeted for removal inside malls and buildings. If you don’t have an access to shower for days or weeks, you’re seen as an unwelcome guest. Walking around in the cold just for a few minutes, you’re freezing outside. Frostbite turns into amputations,” he said.

Smith referenced previous data released by Alberta Health Services, regarding the number of frostbite incidents and amputations amongst the unhoused, to reinforce that danger.

“It was an AHS stat that 50 per cent of all of their frostbite admissions that were homeless, had an amputation,” he said.

“The opportunity to come into a space like this to prevent those medical emergencies, it also eases the strain on the provincial hospital system, on fire, on EMS. With the multitude of organizations working here, we’ll be able to connect with individuals, check them into the housing list, and offer program referrals and support to hopefully help them on their journey out of homelessness.”

Dignified space to seek warmth

Part of the other aspect, said Smith, was to offer a dignified space overnight to stay warm. The small number of families expected were set to receive private rooms, a separate space for couples was set up, as was a place for individuals and their pets.

Smith said they were also offering meals throughout the night, with a kitchen that was going to serve for the entire time the warming centre was open.

“Each individual will have the opportunity to eat throughout the night, to sleep with in peace. We’re going to be offering earplugs as well, because one of the huge complaints we get is ‘I can’t sleep people are snoring, they’re farting, they’re burping.’ Well, earplugs that it’s an easy fix for that,” he said.

The groups were also planning on showing a comedy movie, as well as offering cards and board games, and arts and crafts to give people something to do indoors.

Ryan Trethewey, a volunteer with both the Central United Church and Water Warriors, said that the idea for a grassroots solution to keeping people warm came out of an understanding that emergency shelters were becoming filled due to the cold weather.

“We decided that due to the overcrowding of the centres that we just needed space, a warm space for people. I’m a recovered addict myself. Two years ago I lived on the streets, and this was something that we really needed in the winter,” he said.

“There’s not enough resources out there to help the amount of homeless population that there is, and this is just too cold. For people with blankets and tents, it’s still too cold.”

He said it was hard to explain what it meant to people who would otherwise be unable to access shelter, to be given a place at the church.

“It warms my heart just knowing that we can offer a place for that for couples, for people, for individuals, and just to know that someone cares about them. That someone’s thinking about them,that they’re not alone, because being out there you got a lot of other things on your mind,” Trethewey said.

Trethewey said that the church board members were convinced of the need to provide help, and that if the pilot was a success, then there was a possibility of offering overnight warming when needs arise.

“It’s been awesome to see all the agencies come together. So, I’ve seen these groups individually on the streets, but to see everybody come together and work for something that we need is awesome. We’re really hoping to do it in the future.”

Daytime warming spaces are also being offered by nine organizations throughout Calgary, including the Calgary Public Library, Rise Calgary, Woods Homes, and Parachute for Pets.

A full list of warming locations across the city can be found at


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