Manitoba

Brandon drop-in centre adapts to help vulnerable people amid shelter space shortage

Brandon's Ask Auntie Blue Door Project, a daytime shelter that initially opened a year ago as a warm place for people to hang out during the day, is now adapting to meet the growing needs of a community in what advocates say is a housing crisis.

Blue Door Project, which opened a year ago, aims to give clients 'hope to move forward,' say co-ordinator

Two women lean on a desk.
The Blue Door Project is operated in Brandon, Man., by Ask Auntie, a program that offers a range of social supports. Ask Auntie staff members Tabitha Hosteen, left, and Jennifer Bernhardt are shown at the drop-in centre's reception desk on Wednesday. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Instead of worrying about just keeping people warm over the winter, a Brandon, Man., drop-in centre has adapted in its first year to meet the growing needs of a community facing what advocates say is a housing crisis.

The Blue Door Project — which celebrated its first anniversary Thursday — was initially intended as a daytime shelter to offer a warm place for people to spend time, but it's been able to offer more than that, says co-ordinator Florence Halcrow.

"We were able to give our people and our community, our vulnerable population, a space to be welcomed, loved and treated with respect," she said.

"It gives them a sense of belonging, and it gives them hope to move forward, and … to feel cared for and to care for others."

The centre is operated by Ask Auntie, a program funded through the Brandon Neighbourhood Renewal Corporation that offers a range of social supports.

Over the past year, staff have developed programming based on what clients say they want, said Halcrow. That's included everything from helping people get identity or status cards to offering a safe place for unhoused people to store essential items.

Staff can also help with things like employment, housing and accessing other resources. 

A woman decorates a Christmas tree while smiling.
Bernhardt places a star on a Christmas tree at the Blue Door Project. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Ask Auntie assistant Jennifer Bernhardt says people using the centre "have shown us how we can ... care for them better.

"They teach us and we teach them," she said. "It's like a family."

More than a warming space

Brandon's Nick Benes said he visits the Blue Door several times a week.

"I come here when I'm cold. I come here when I need something to eat. I come here when I need coffee," he said.

"I come here when I'm bored, to find the other people that could be sitting around bored as well, and then we team up and find something to do."

The services Blue Door offers are "essential for life," said Brandon Neighbourhood Renewal Corporation executive director Rushana Newman, especially as the winter weather kicks in.

"For the past year it has touched so many lives ... and is making such a big difference in our community," she said.

The number of people dropping by the Blue Door has grown over its first year to include more than 300 unique visitors, Halcrow said. On a typical day, more than 50 people pass through its doors, she said.

But the drop-in, like other social service agencies in the city, has been affected by the Safe and Warm Shelter — the only overnight homeless shelter in Brandon — hitting its capacity limit in October, Halcrow said.

An older Indigenous women smiles standing in front of a medicine wheel.
The Blue Door Project has 'turned out to be more than I envisioned, because all I wanted to do was make sure our people were warm in the wintertime,' says Ask Auntie co-ordinator Florence Halcrow. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

That forced the Blue Door to adapt its services. For a week in October, it temporarily moved to being open 24 hours a day, with support from the City of Brandon, to provide shelter, along with food, blankets and other necessities.

Halcrow has seen first-hand that the Blue Door's clients have needs that go well beyond a daytime drop-in centre.

"It actually turned out to be more than I envisioned, because all I wanted to do was make sure our people were warm in the wintertime," she said. "The growth I've seen in the past year just makes me want to cry."

Some clients have been able to find stability by moving on to jobs and housing, she said — in many cases through connections made at the drop-in.

Ask Auntie support worker Tabitha Hosteen says the community emerging around the Blue Door has been amazing to see.

"Blue Door is really expressing that community love," she said. "This is what we are supposed to do for our people. We speak for our people. We stand for our people. We give them comfort. We give them hope."

Working to expand resources

Halcrow said she's feeling optimistic about the future for the drop-in, and the difference it can make in the community based on what staff have learned in its first year.

She hopes to one day occupy a larger place that can offer more resources and community connections. But seeing her full vision for the Blue Door Project come to life will take more funding, Halcrow said.

Three women stand in front of a window with Christmas decorations.
Bernhardt, Hosteen and Ask Auntie staff member Teryn Mecas at the Blue Door Project. Halcrow says she hopes the centre will one day have a larger space. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Newman wants to see the Blue Door continue to grow to better meet the needs of the most vulnerable people in Manitoba's second-largest city, but she also says that will take support from all levels of government and the community as a whole.

"I'm hoping to see the Blue Door expand in such a way that it's not just a drop-in centre, but that we provide more transitional supportive housing, and also increase the services that we offer," Newman said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chelsea Kemp

Brandon Reporter

Chelsea Kemp is a multimedia journalist with CBC Manitoba. She is based in CBC's bureau in Brandon, covering stories focused on rural Manitoba. Share your story ideas, tips and feedback with chelsea.kemp@cbc.ca.

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