People collecting donations for wildfire evacuees are being told by Social Services to stop and take everything to Salvation Army instead.
Shylo Stevenson came to Regina from his home in Fort Qu’Appelle last week to give evacuees rides within the city. He’s staying at a hotel that is also the temporary home of more than 100 evacuees, many with very young children. He says he started hearing from people who needed more clothes and toys for kids because they say they are only getting vouchers for one set of clothing per person.
“When we were donating stuff we went to Evraz and they said we can’t take stuff and same with the university, but we heard different things on Facebook from the evacuees,” Stevenson said. “That’s sort of why we took it into our own hands to say hey if you need more than one set – which is all they’re allowed right now – come here.”
Stevenson says the response was immediate. It started with his own friends and family then snowballed online with many people asking to donate. His small suite at the Chateau Regina Hotel started filling with 80 bags and 20 boxes of donated clothes and toys. Evacuees staying at the hotel welcomed the donations.
“Within five minutes, even before I could get the stuff unloaded in the room, there (were) people in here helping me sort everything out into different ages and male-female,” he said.
Angel Ballantyne is one of the evacuees staying at the same hotel with her baby; she says she was so happy to see the donations.
“It feels good that someone out there actually cares about us,” she said. “We thought we were never that important to cities like this and I guess we are.”
Once the word got out on social media, Stevenson started getting calls from evacuees at other hotels and the University of Regina asking for support.
“Social Services came here yesterday and sort of asked me to take all the stuff to Salvation Army where they’re handling all the donations,” he said. “We had some evacuees in the room when they were doing that and they got frustrated with them saying they weren’t getting the support they needed to only get one set of clothes.”
Stevenson politely declined the offer to ship everything to Salvation Army.
“It just seemed odd – you would think in a situation like this all the help should be supported,” he said, adding he understands the concerns they could possibly have about things like bed bugs or lice.
Stevenson got a call from the File Hills Tribal Council who offered more support to coordinate the donations.
The Gathering Place in Regina is now set up to sort and distribute donations of clothing and kids toys to the now more than 1,200 people staying in the city.
Karri Kempf is with the Ministry of Social Services. During a call with the media, when she was asked about people wanting to donate directly to evacuees, she strongly advised against it.
“I would say it’s grossly unfair for evacuees and community leadership to be given another task when their primary focus is on vulnerable individuals in their community,” she said.
Kempf indicated that it is too complicated to make sure donations are fairly distributed between evacuees from different communities.
“If people are really adamant that they have to donate, there are charities within every community in Saskatchewan that they can start with,” she said.
Kempf also said having people show up to drop-off donations at evacuation centres can make evacuees feel uncomfortable and even put them at risk because those people are not screened for security.
“They make people uncomfortable,” she said. “Lots of these evacuees don’t necessarily want to be in the parking lot having a quiet moment and be challenged by someone with a garbage bag full of clothes.”
Kempf said the logistics of setting up warehouses for these donations would take needed volunteers away from the task of helping people.
The Salvation Army is still accepting donations particularly for things like summer clothing, shorts, t-shirts, sandals and swimsuits.
The Saskatchewan Red Cross continues to make it clear that it is not taking in-kind donations of items on site at evacuation centres. Donations of money are always accepted by the Red Cross but in this there is no specific wildfire relief fund.
Despite the instructions from the Ministry of Social Services, there is one Facebook group with more than 6,000 members directing people to places where they can drop off donations or volunteer to help sort them.