Warming centres are the last stitch in Vancouver’s social safety net, with most providing little more than basic refuge from the freezing temperatures outside.
On Wednesday, at every warming centre across the city, there was pizza.
Delivery drivers dropped off 133 hot, cheesy and delicious pies that night, the culmination of a spur-of-the-moment idea between two acquaintances who believe in the power of a helping hand.
“Nobody is going to save us but us,” said Gabrielle Peters, a disabled writer and policy analyst who co-organized the pizza drive. “We have to be there to care for each other.”
Peters is well-known to local politicians – and to her thousands of online followers – as the firebrand advocate behind the rallying cry, “Make it accessible or burn it down.” It was merchandise bearing that motto, designed by former Paralympic athlete Arley Cruthers, that raised the first $600 or so spent on pizzas this week.
Some of the funds had already gone towards Peters’ Crip Care initiative, which provides blankets and other comfort items to disabled people in hospital. But as the temperatures were plummeting, Peters was reminded of her time volunteering at a warming centre in Vancouver’s West End, and the scarce resources available for vulnerable residents seeking an escape from the cold.
Pizza, she thought.
“I knew that there was nothing there, really, for people to eat. There was coffee and tea and that was about it,” Peters said. “I thought hey, what if we sent pizzas?”
Based on their available cash, Peters and Cruthers initially hoped to provide hot meals to three or four warming centre locations. But after a simple Tweet asking for restaurant recommendations – which received a signal boost from Mo Amir, host of “This is Vancolour” – the pair suddenly found themselves flush with a steady stream of small donations.
Before they knew it, they had raised more than $3,000. Suddenly, they had enough to provide pizzas to 15 different warming centres and shelters.
When the phone unexpectedly rang at the Vancouver Odd Fellows Lodge, volunteer Walter Wells couldn’t believe their luck.
The longtime service organization has been running a warming centre in partnership with the city for the last few years, and members have tried to go above and beyond – taking turns providing warm meals for the people spending the night whenever possible.
“They’re famished, they’re always hungry,” Wells said of their guests. “The cold really sucks the energy out of you.”
But on Wednesday night, there was no food to be served.
“We had nobody to cook a dinner,” Wells said. “So when (Gabrielle) called me up, it was perfect.”
Not long after, a delivery person arrived bearing 10 pizzas. Others went to Aboriginal Front Door, Atira Women’s Society, Cascades Church, Directions Youth Centre, Gathering Place, the Langara YMCA, Marpole Neighourhood House, Mount Pleasant Community Centre, Powell Street Gateway, Salvation Army Belkin House, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and the West End Community Centre.
Peters and Cruthers might have thought they were finished with the pizza drive after that, but the pizza drive wasn’t finished with them.
Money kept coming in on Thursday – including two donations of $500 a piece – so the pair ended up getting 57 more pies delivered to 10 locations. They also passed on donations of $250 each to Odd Fellows and two others organizations.
Peters couldn’t have been more pleased with how the week unfolded, but her real hope is that the government steps up and provides more – more housing, more shelters, more food.
In the meantime, she encouraged anyone who feels the spark of human solidarity this holiday season to get involved somewhere close to home.
“Community is a verb, not just a noun,” Peters said. “It’s the act of doing. It’s being present and making things happen in whatever way you can.”