Marilyn is a chronic alcoholic. Sometimes she is homeless and needs a place to shower and get a warm meal.
Rhonda is a former crack addict who had nowhere to go and no one who cared.
Nyachol is another former addict who was once so sick from drug use she thought she would never pull through.
Meet the women of the Warm Zone – a drop-in centre on McCallum Road in Abbotsford for those who are “street entrenched.”
Some have drug addictions, and some suffer from mental illness. Some are sex-trade workers, and some are homeless. Most have a combination of these issues.
The Warm Zone, they say, is a haven – a place where they can escape the dangers of the streets, fill their empty stomachs, take a hot shower, do their laundry and make a free long-distance call to a family member.
They can attend support groups, get help accessing substance abuse treatment, obtain condoms and clean needles, talk to a counsellor, receive a free haircut and create artwork.
They bond with other women, learn to trust, and boost their self-esteem.
It is the closest thing to a home that many of the women have had.
The thought of losing this sanctuary is devastating to them, but the Warm Zone is in imminent danger of having to close its doors.
Three-year pilot-project funding of $93,000 annually from the Status of Women Canada ran out in March, and no other municipal, provincial or federal funding sources have been approved, said Warm Zone co-ordinator Michele Giordano.
She said the program has since been operating from the reserve funds of its umbrella organization, the Women’s Resource Society of the Fraser Valley, and can’t continue doing that for much longer.
But Giordano said keeping the Warm Zone open saves tax dollars. As an example, she said there were 34 pregnancies among women visiting the Warm Zone in its first year. Last year, there were nine. So far this year, there have been two.
Much of this can be attributed to the distribution of free condoms, which sex-trade workers living in poverty often can’t afford to buy, but which fill a basket at the Warm Zone.
Giordano said other money is also saved through the prevention of disease such as hepatitis C and HIV. A shelf in the Warm Zone houses a plastic organizer filled with clean needles and other containers for the deposit of used ones, and free HIV testing is done on site every month.
Giordano and outreach worker Erica Thomson ensure that women wanting to get clean receive the treatment they need. They’ll make the arrangements for women who otherwise would have no access to a phone, drive them to the locations and stay with them as they check in.
If a woman who’s due for treatment doesn’t show up at the Warm Zone, they’ll track her down.
“We’ll go look under bridges. We’ll go to crack shacks,” Giordano said.
Where else are these women going to get this kind of support, asks Rhonda, who credits the Warm Zone with helping her seek treatment. She is now clean and has her own apartment.
“If it closes, there are going to be a lot of women who will die. It will be chaotic,” she said. “(Without the Warm Zone) I’d probably be dead, honest to God.”
Giordano said the Warm Zone has strong working relationships with the Abbotsford Police Department, the City of Abbotsford, Abbotsford Community Services, the church community, and others.
“Everyone agrees this is amazing work we’re doing … but nobody wants to step up for the funding … We need long-term stability.”
One woman summarizes her belief in why further government support has not transpired: “Society thinks we’re trash, but we’re not.
“We’re human beings.”
– The Warm Zone hosts a “Community Relationship Building” event on Thursday, Aug. 30 at Jubilee Park, starting at 2 p.m. The event includes a dunk tank with Abbotsford Police officers, free food, games and information sharing. For more information about the Warm Zone, visit wrsfv.ca and click on the Warm Zone link under “programs” or call 604-746-3301.