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Bringing some warmth to a cold Christmas

It was minus 33, and Dale was just wearing a T-shirt and three jackets.With a bare neck and no mitts, the middle-aged man was standing outside the…

It was minus 33, and Dale was just wearing a T-shirt and three jackets.

With a bare neck and no mitts, the middle-aged man was standing outside the Salvation Army shelter with three other people.

It was just after 3 p.m. on Monday, and the shelter was closed for another five hours.

“We just walk around,” he said.

“We dress for it — it’s just my hands.”

The foursome wandered about a block before one of them tried to warm up in the Adult Warehouse.

He was kicked out before the others had a chance to get in the door.

“I always wear three layers of clothes,” said the sole woman in the group, who asked to remain anonymous.

It’s her second winter on the streets.

For Christmas, she’s planning a trip home to stay with her extended family in Carcross.

“I’ve been out on the streets so long, it’s a hard adjustment to settle into home life again,” she said.

The group was making its way to CAIRS to see if it was open.

But CAIRS is only open Tuesday and Thursday, said Danny, sitting outside the Sally Ann having a smoke.

“I don’t know where people go,” he said.

“The shelter should be open longer.”

The shelter closes its doors at 3 p.m. and opens them again at 8 p.m. On weekends it’s closed from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.

“That’s 12 hours,” said Danny.

“Where can people go?”

It used to be open 24-7, said Salvation Army Captain Johanna Sessford.

But the funding changed about four years ago, she said.

And while most people shaking bells and garnering donations for the Salvation Army’s kettle drive across Canada are paid, there’s no funding for it in the territory.

The Yukon kettles are manned by volunteers, said Sessford.

“It’s generosity of spirit,” she said.

“Some people put in 20 to 40 hours (a season).”

This year’s goal is $50,000.

“And we’re certainly very close,” said Sessford. “That’s an average of $2 per person — people are very generous.”

But the Salvation Army is always in need.

In the last six weeks, the number of people using its food bank has doubled.

“We were getting an average of 25 people, and now we’re getting 50,” said Sessford.

“We’re quite low on food supplies.”

“I don’t usually come here,” said Nicole Gladue last week.

The young woman and her roommate, who has four kids ages four through 15, were picking up a big box of food.

“With Christmas gifts, food is kind of scare,” she said.

Gladue has been looking for a place for more than a year.

“But I’m turned down not because I don’t have enough money — it’s because I’m on (social assistance) and I’m native.”

“Landlords don’t want people on (social assistance),” said her roommate Mark Mendelsohn.

There’s no affordable housing in Whitehorse, said Dickson, who’d come to the Salvation Army for lunch and a warm place to sit.

“Where can you find a place that will take you?”

The rooms that are available are full of mould and silverfish, added Dickson, who’s been couch surfing during the cold snap.

“The politicians say they’re setting up affordable housing, but all I see are condos.”

“We need permanent housing solutions,” said Rocky, who’d stopped in for a warm coffee.

“Tell Mr. (Dennis) Fentie we need a place to stay.”

It’s easy to just ignore this, said a young man with AIDS who did not want to give his name.

He pointed to an old woman in the corner of the room.

“She can’t walk — she has a bad back and chest — she’s been sitting on that chair for three weeks,” he said.

“And people just ignore her, they have no time for her.

“And, at 3 p.m., she’s out on the street just like the rest of us.

“Her hands and body get so cold, and her feet ….”

Several men were asleep, heads down on lunchroom tables.

The shelter’s often full, said Dickson. “People sleep in chairs at the tables.”

 “What we need is low-cost housing,” said another woman at the shelter.

The 60-year-old has a room at the ‘98 Hotel and Breakfast Club.

She and another senior, who has a place through Yukon Housing, were divvying up a bag of food-bank groceries.

“I don’t have a kitchen,” said the woman.

“So I can’t use a lot of this.”

There’s not enough seniors’ housing, said Rocky.

Whitehorse needs more permanent housing, added Sessford.

“And there needs to be more supported housing for people who can’t care for themselves.”

Sessford envisions hotel-style housing with private rooms that include housekeeping and some restrictions.

Supported housing would give people much-needed stability, she said.

“And this would allow them to address some of their other issues.

“Some people think you need to get rid of the issues and then give people housing — but housing should come first.”

Addressing the housing situation is important, said Maryhouse director Kate O’Donnell.

“And we need to attend to that.

“But as it says in the Bible, we will always have the poor with us.

“We live in a capitalist society, and not everyone is going to be rich.”

Like the Sally Ann, Maryhouse has also seen an increase in its food program.

“Our numbers have been climbing up, but it’s not necessarily because of Christmas,” she said.

Though O’Donnell has “had some recent situations where people were in need of help.”

It often happens around Christmas, she said.

It can be as simple as a skiing accident, or a car breaking down.

“Someone is doing better, and then suddenly, they’re off work,” said O’Donnell. “And if they’re part-time, then they don’t have benefits.

“I had one woman who hadn’t been in for a while who was suddenly left in the lurch.”

O’Donnell also sees spontaneous acts of compassion.

“We just had someone come by today who wanted to buy groceries for a family at Christmas,” she said on Tuesday.

“I find people are very generous at this time of year.”

Maryhouse is giving away toques, socks, mitts and toys that it received from Holy Family school’s giving tree.

And there are hams for the single men, said O’Donnell.

“They might not be able to handle a turkey in their hotel room, but they can handle a canned ham.”

The Sally Ann also gives away Christmas hampers and serves up dinner on Christmas Day.

“We decorate the place, set the tables, put on music and make it nice,” said Sess-ford.

Kaushee’s Place also tries to bring some Christmas cheer to its residents.

“Leaving an abusive relationship and seeking safety is always stressful,” said Kaushee’s facility manager Renee-Claude Carrier.

“So we want to make sure at this time of year that everyone has everything they need.”

Kaushee’s has gifts for children of all ages, in case a family arrives during the holidays with nothing.

“You never know when someone may have to leave in the middle of the night,” said Carrier.

“And this year we had one family, where the kids decided instead of buying gifts for each other they’d make stockings for all the children in the home,” she said.

It’s hard for the residents during the holidays, “people miss things, so we make it as homey as possible.”

“It’s always emotionally and mentally harder at Christmas,” said Dickson, suiting up at the Sally Ann in preparation for his afternoon out in the cold.

“It’s hard to keep myself from crying.

“But I had a good childhood — and good childhood memories.”

There are a lot of compassionate, loving and resilient people who use the shelter, said Sessford.

“These people who have these difficult lives have such wonderful humour — they find so much to laugh about.

“And we can learn from that.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at