The homeless call him Uncle Kees. He has been opening the doors to the First United Church extreme-weather shelter every year for the past six.
Kees Koster’s nightly routine consists of preparing the beds, warming the food and providing company to society’s most vulnerable people.
Five homeless people – joined by fellow volunteer Sandra Horbachewsky – were standing at the White Rock church’s back doors Wednesday evening, waiting for Koster to let them in.
When the clock stuck 9:30 p.m., Koster, as he does every cold evening, opened the doors.
The four men and one woman streamed in and neatly hung their coats, before helping Koster arrange the sleeping mats.
“They know the drill,” Koster said, noting said there are a handful of regulars every year. He said they’re like extended family.
“The oldtimers, they started calling me Uncle Kees three or four years ago, that’s kind of a badge of honour.”
This year, however, that extended family has expanded. There are more people using the shelter this year than ever before.
Koster said that in past years, it has been normal to see about three to five people use the shelter. He’s seen an average of 11 since the beginning of this month.
“Everyone knew everybody and it was great. This is altogether different,” Koster said.
Tuesday night, when the temperature dropped to -4 C, the shelter was used by 16 people. The capacity is approximately 15.
“I don’t know whether it’s because it’s colder or whether it has anything to do with the downturn of the economy in the western provinces because of the oil causing people to come this way. I don’t know where all the folks come from.”
Lori Dennis, deputy executive director of Options BC, says the significant jump in numbers is alarming. She’s been working in homeless services in the Lower Mainland for the past 20 years.
“This is the coldest I can recall and I’m exceedingly worried about our neighbours and friends on the street,” Dennis told Peace Arch News Wednesday.
Earlier this month, the CBC reported that a 53-year-old woman froze to death on the streets in Winnipeg.
“I got my start working for homelessness in Ottawa and to have somebody perish on the street overnight is a horrible thing and I don’t want to encounter that,” Dennis said.
The extreme-weather shelter opens on a judgment call from Options. The temperature, high winds and precipitation are all factors. Volunteers work at the shelter until 11 p.m. before being relieved by Options BC staff. The staff stay with the homeless overnight until a second round of volunteers turns up in the morning.
This is Horbachewsky’s first year volunteering for the shelter. She’s been working seven of the past eight days.
“It’s not really hard work and they’re very appreciative. ‘Please, thank you, could I get this please?’ I guess they feel lucky they have some place to go to get out of the cold,” Horbachewsky said.
Dennis said Options BC needs more volunteers, and prospective volunteers are welcome to call 604-584-5811.
“We worry about volunteer burnout. Because we’ve been activated here for two weeks and there’s no break in the foreseeable future, I’m really worried about burning out volunteers.”
First United Church is located at 15385 Semiahmoo Ave.