One of the most critical volunteer programs on the Sunshine Coast is the one that steps in to help people in the worst moments of their lives—when they are left homeless by fire, flood or disaster. And yet most people don’t know about it.
For 13 years Marilyn Pederson has been the Emergency Social Services Director for the Sunshine Coast. Through the provincial Emergency Management program, she and her deputy, Fern Keene, coordinate the provision of food, shelter and clothing for up to 72 hours for people who have no insurance and would otherwise be left with nothing.
The Emergency program is called in by emergency responders, such as the fire department, when people are displaced. And this winter was their busiest ever due to calls from a series of devastating home fires.
“These people have just usually lost everything,” said Keene. “And they’re in a state of shock. Sometimes they’re reeking of smoke and wrapped in a sheet.”
“They all say the same thing: ‘I’ve never heard of you before’.”
The Emergency program covers a hotel room or billet, meals or groceries, basic clothing, and personal items such as prescriptions and toiletries. Pederson and Keene also help people start the process of replacing key items such as ID.
“It’s heart-breaking,” said Pederson. “This last winter the response was mostly smaller non-conventional homes like vacation trailers that people were living in and because of the temperatures, using candles, stoves and heaters to keep warm.”
“Sadly, sitting on the other side of the fence as an insurance agent, I see what somebody who has insurance can get after a disaster—a nice cheque to just go out and start getting everything all brand new replaced.”
The largest portion of local residents without insurance are tenants, who are often struggling to afford rent and don’t want to pay for insurance as well. Mortgage companies require homeowners to buy insurance, but people who own their house outright may decide to save some money and take their chances.
Small emergencies are classified as “Level 1”, but Pederson and Keene are also part of the larger Sunshine Coast Emergency Program that is ready to open up evacuation centres in the case of a large disaster such as an earthquake. That program is run through the SCRD by Coordinator Bill Elsner.
“The biggest message we want to get out to everybody is be prepared,” said Pederson. She has a handout, also available on the SCRD’s website, on “26 Weeks to Family Emergency Preparedness” that outlines a plan for getting your family ready.
While Pederson and Keene are often called into traumatic situations, they obviously love the work. “The most rewarding part is to know that there is something that I can do,” said Keene.
And they are full of praise for the suppliers who participate in the program, such as IGA, London Drugs and Mark’s Work Wearhouse in Gibsons who are “amazing.”