Vancouver Sun

‘It’s about keeping people alive. In better times, we want to be helping people find safety, security and stability, but right now it’s just base survival’

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Shelters for the homeless are trying to open more so-called extreme weather response spaces as very cold temperatures, heavy and blowing snow are in the forecast for the next week.

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Some facilities, however, that don’t have COVID-19 vaccination requirements are constrained by the need for physical distancing as cases rise. Others are still reeling from demand that hasn’t let up since the November storms.

“We only have 10 (extreme weather response) mats. It’s down from about 20 mats (in past years), since they have to be spaced out more,” said Michelle Puffer, executive director of the Mission Community Services Society, which runs an emergency shelter, supportive housing and extreme weather response spaces.

Last year, the society expanded its emergency shelter spaces, which are dorm-style beds, from 27 to 57. “We had 30 more physical beds, so we were also able to have less (extreme weather response) mats,” said Puffer.

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The situation is different every night, but on some nights there are clients who line up for the extreme weather response spaces and get turned away, she said.

Proof of vaccination is not required, but testing is done twice a week for staff and residents at the shelter, though not for the extreme weather response spaces.

“We want to keep minimum barriers to those who are seeking shelter,” said executive director Stephen D’Souza of the Homelessness Services Association of B.C., which supports shelters, drop-in centres and outreach teams.

He added that masks are distributed and staff at shelters have found creative ways to make physical distancing possible.

People sleeping on the streets in Vancouver on Tuesday.
People sleeping on the streets in Vancouver on Tuesday. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

It is also the case that health or social services provided to people in need, such as warming centres, are exempt from the provincial health officer’s gathering and events order.

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“This kind of severe cold weather poses extreme and possibly life-threatening risks to people who are experiencing homelessness, or people who are in really precarious housing,” said Nicole Mucci, spokesperson at Union Gospel Mission.

In the City of Vancouver, additional extreme weather response centres were added at eight locations on Tuesday. In total, it means there will be an extra 110 more sleeping mats available.

Extreme weather response efforts usually begin in November and run to the end of March, but this year some started earlier. “Due to the flooding, we knew it wasn’t going to get better and with COVID-19 as well, the need for a place to stay was more urgent,” said Puffer.

Mucci said that during the heavy rainstorms caused by an atmospheric river, UGM had to turn away 100 people during November even after adding 20 permanent spaces for a total of 92. In December, it has had to tell 35 people there is no space.

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Sites that are usually open for a few nights or more periodically have had to operate continuously already for weeks, said D’Souza.

“There’s a lot of exhaustion in the field,” he said. “People have been working a lot of long hours, going back to the extreme heat (events in the summer).

“It’s about keeping people alive. In better times, we want to be helping people find safety, security and stability, but right now it’s just base survival.”

“There’s been no vacancy since the flooding,” said Susan Kaur, manager at Penny’s Place Women’s Shelter in Abbotsford, which has three extreme weather response mats for the cold weather. “Shelters are all calling each other asking each other. There hasn’t been a break.”

jlee-young@postmedia.com


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