Youth Winter Inn opens

Temperatures hovered just over the freezing point and frost was already building on vehicle windows to mark the opening of Youth Winter Inn at 9 p.m. on Sunday.

Youth Winter Inn program coordinator Brian McGhee and workers Melissa Holt and Ashley Costigan wait for their first customers on the opening night of the Winter Inn program at the Youth and Volunteer Centre.

Temperatures hovered just over the freezing point and frost was already building on vehicle windows to mark the opening of Youth Winter Inn at 9 p.m. on Sunday.

Things were still quiet by 9:30 p.m. in the basement of Red Deer’s Youth and Volunteer Centre, where staff had laid out five sleeping mats the colour of a double-double, each equipped with a neatly-folded red and black plaid blanket.

No, the blankets aren’t wool, said program co-ordinator Brian McGhee with a shiver. That would be mean.

This new program, developed as part of a city initiative to end homelessness, is meant to be anything but mean.

Youth Winter Inn provides teens from 14 to 17 years old who have run out of options with the bare necessities: A pair of clean socks, a warm place to sleep and a safe place to stow their belongings.

When there are no more couches to surf, no more empty cars or unlocked RVs to hide in, no ATM foyers left and it’s too cold to sleep under a bridge, Youth Winter Inn is set up to keep its teenaged clients safe and warm.

They don’t have to show ID, they don’t have to be clean or sober and they don’t have to put up with a lot of prying questions, said program manager Rose Hatfield.

“No one will be turned away,” she said.

“We do not want to give them a barrier or a reason not to feel safe here.”

Teens coming in for the night are advised to empty their pockets of personal belongings and place those goods in their backpacks, which are surrendered at the door.

Staff then lock the backpacks up for the night without checking the contents for lighters, weapons or contraband. Those who don’t have backpacks can roll their goods up in their jackets and that will give them the same level of privacy.

It’s all part of assuring teens who want to use the program that their privacy will be respected.

The program’s primary purpose is to keep the kids safe and warm for the night, regardless of the reasons that they’re on the street, said Hatfield.

It is for those same reasons that staff will ask very few questions and will not pry into the personal lives of the teens they hope to serve, she said.

The Youth Winter Inn was established because, until Sunday, there was no program in place for youths who can’t get into other mat programs for various reasons, including being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Being drunk or stoned should not automatically sentence a person to sleeping in the street, said Hatfield.

Those adult programs that accept intoxicants are not appropriate for teens, she said.

At this point, Youth Winter Inn has five mats, with girls segregated from boys by a portable wall. There’s room to expand to 10 mats if there is enough need, said Hatfield.

While staff are limiting their questions, the program will keep statistics on the number of teens who are sleeping in the streets and the number who are getting involved with drugs and alcohol.

Support has come from a variety of sources, including donations from Telus and funding through United Way.

McGhee has also approached a variety of merchants for help running a donations service similar to the Food Bank program at grocery stores.

So far, Winners has set out a big box and makes periodic announcements through the day, inviting people to donate goods for the program.

Youth Winter Inn, located in the basement of the Youth and Volunteer Centre at 4633 – 49th Street, is open from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m., with overnighters to be discharged at 7:30 each morning.

Teens are welcome to call the basement office during operating hours at 403-341-0604 or contact the Youth and Volunteer Centre during ordinary business hours at 403-342-6500.

bkossowan@bprda.wpengine.com

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