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With cold setting in, B.C. homeless advocates say more shelters, warming space needed

A homeless man sleeps in a doorway in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Monday, Dec. 19, 2016. .
A homeless man sleeps in a doorway in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Monday, Dec. 19, 2016. . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Cities and faith groups across Metro Vancouver are opening up space for local homeless populations to get warm as temperatures plunge below freezing, with the cold set to last well into the week.

The City of Vancouver says several temporary warming centres and emergency weather shelters will stay open until at least Wednesday, with more shelters opening Sunday.

The announcement came along with forecasts that the weather in Vancouver could drop as low as minus 10 degrees Celsius overnight Monday and Tuesday, with similar conditions until at least Friday.

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But Jeremy Hunka with the Union Gospel Mission (UGM) says the announced measures are not enough, and people are still being turned away and getting forced to stay outside overnight.

“Our guests are telling us they’re scared of the cold, so we have to be there for them,” he said.

“Things have improved since earlier this year, but we’re still going to have hundreds of people who are outside braving the elements and they’re at risk.”

Cold snap: helping the homeless
Cold snap: helping the homeless

The open centres include the Powell Street Gateway near Oppenheimer Park, where dozens of people have been living in tents since last year and have been calling for their own warming tent on-site.

On Friday, when the first snowfall of the season hit Metro Vancouver, a tent burned up in a fire. Other tents have burned due to propane heaters and barbecues set up inside.

Hunka says people are resorting to desperate measures to keep warm.

READ MORE: City renews safety concerns in Oppenheimer Park after fires sparked by propane heaters

“The list of things that can kill you when you’re homeless is long, but the list of things that can kill you during extreme weather is extremely long,” he said.

“We don’t want people getting hurt or dying from lighting a candle just to keep warm.”

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The most recent homeless count just for Vancouver identified 2,223 people living on the street, an all-time high for the city since the count began in 2002.

Emergency cold-weather services for the homeless
Emergency cold-weather services for the homeless

Other cities in Metro Vancouver have warming centres available for extreme weather, including Burnaby, Surrey and Coquitlam.

But many of those same cities have fewer than 100 beds available at their overnight short-term shelters, according to lists of available shelters provided by BC Housing and BC211.

Extreme cold prompts worry

Meanwhile, advocates say the even colder temperatures forecast east of the Lower Mainland are creating more concern.

Extreme cold warnings and special weather statements have been issued for much of B.C., with temperatures set to range anywhere from minus 20 to minus 40 degrees Celsius.

READ MORE: Historically low temperatures coming to much of B.C. as winter chill sets in

Ward Draper, a pastor and the executive director of Five and Two who works with the homeless in the Fraser Valley, estimates about 300 people are homeless or sleeping in their cars in Abbotsford alone.

Of those, only half have been able to get a bed in a shelter, he says, with no warming space provided for people to go temporarily.

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“We just do not seem to keep pace with the needs of this issue,” he said. “We need more hands helping, and we need government to move a little bit quicker.

“It’s absolutely brutal. I’m watching it turn to snow right now and it’s getting colder, and I’m concerned.”

Snow and cold hit Metro Vancouver
Snow and cold hit Metro Vancouver

Draper says his group doesn’t have a permanent shelter space, so members and volunteers do their best to distribute blankets and supplies to those who can’t get inside.

Hunka says one of two UGM outreach teams are deployed to the Fraser Valley to do the same, but agreed it does little to address the problem.

“There isn’t enough housing, not enough emergency supports when you get that far out there, and it’s just bad for people and they’re not ready for cold like this,” he said.

READ MORE: Bitterly cold air in the Okanagan to last all week: Environment Canada

In Kamloops, where blowing snow has made the brutally cold conditions even worse, Ask Wellness executive director Bob Hughes spent Sunday pleading with residents and business owners to open their doors.

“We’re just getting started here, and we’re going down to minus 29,” he said. “It’s absolutely essential that the community at least have a warming place.”

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At least one coffee shop, the Vic Downtown, allowed people to come in from the streets and warm up Sunday.

Metro Vancouver wakes up to another round of snow
Metro Vancouver wakes up to another round of snow

While some shelters have been accommodating, Hughes said other temporary spaces have yet to open, leaving people to sleep outside.

“It’s all hands on deck here as we make sure that people at least have somewhere to go,” he said. “People will freeze to death within an hour in this kind of climate, so we’re doing our part.”

Hunka is hopeful more people feel the need to bring at least one person out of the cold to ensure no one succumbs to the elements.

“People’s lives are on the line, and it’s up to us and everyone else to pay attention and help out,” he said.