A small pot slowly simmers on a hotplate in a small, dark motel room. Outside a cold wind blows through Nanaimo as winter begins to set in. Karen, who preferred to withhold her last name, and her sister call this cheap room home, but it will not be long before they may have to spend a cold night in their vehicle because they cannot afford to stay.
Karen drove to Nanaimo in May to help look after her grandchildren shortly before her daughter gave birth. She expected to return to her home in Calgary months ago, but found herself in a precarious situation when unexpected car repairs, including two smashed windows, delayed the trip indefinitely.
“When I went to fix my car, the person at the window place said, ‘oh you must have Alberta plates’,” Karen said.
They were not able to stay with friends and family for long because everyone in their limited support network are renters. Her daughter and grandchildren live in a small space and the landlord lives upstairs.
“My kids would take us in in a heartbeat if they could, but they can’t jeopardize losing their own stability. As a mother you don’t want that for your children,” Karen said.
After fixing the smashed windows and some other unexpected repairs, she said she is not left with much money to spare — and she still needs to replace her headlights before making the drive through the mountains to her motorhome in Calgary. She said she may be stuck in Nanaimo until spring because she does not want to risk an accident on the icy highways.
“We can at least be warm and be okay for the night,” Karen said.
That warmth comes from a “hope stove,” a gift from a local man who began making the stoves for Nanaimo’s homeless population after making one to keep himself warm while winter camping.
Mike Hay said he builds the stoves in the evenings to keep himself busy. He mentioned he was a little nervous the first time he approached someone with his invention.
“They’re a little weirded out, [wondering] why I’m walking up to them. And I’m just like ‘can you guys use one of these?’” he said.
Each stove is essentially a giant candle and is made from an empty paint can filled halfway with melted wax. The stoves can be used as a safe way to stay warm and heat up food. Holes are punched into the upper half, as well as through the lid, which is sealed shut with a hammer.
Donated candles are melted in a large pot on his kitchen stove and poured into the cans, each containing five large wicks, custom made by Hay. He estimated a hope stove can keep a person warm for five nights of 12-hour burning. The stoves will help homeless people avoid dangerous methods of preparing a hot meal, he said.
“One person said they tried to cook food on a shovel and one lady said she has been using hand sanitizer, because it’s kind of accessible right now,” said Hay.
“So she’s been lighting hand sanitizer on fire in a soup can, which — that’s like pure alcohol and super dangerous — if that spills over, that fire is going to be everywhere.”
Hay said he is still experimenting with the design, but feels confident the stoves are safe. The lid is firmly in place and prevents a fire from spreading if one is knocked over.
He started making them about two weeks ago and said the biggest challenge is gathering all the supplies. A local paint store gives him a two for one deal on the paint cans, but Hay said wax is more difficult to get his hands on. He made a Facebook Marketplace ad requesting people to donate any unwanted candles and said he got a very positive response so far.
“How much help and how much good I can do is really going to be based on how many people can throw some candles our way,” he said.
The Nanaimo Homelessness Coalition found there were 425 people who were counted as experiencing homelessness in the city in 2020.
“People are only one or two paycheques away themselves or they’re making do just until the end of the month,” said Karen, adding she does not have a credit card to fall back on. She hopes not to have to spend nights in her vehicle, but it is a possibility on her drive home.
Nearly one quarter of Nanaimo’s 68,000 renters consider themselves at risk of becoming homeless, according to the Canadian Rental Housing Index.