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Okanagan service providers scramble to shelter homeless as temps plummet to – 30 C

Cold snap drives up demand for shelter space in Vernon
Plummeting temperatures are driving up demand for shelter spaces in Vernon and around the Okanagan. While extra room is being made in many facilities, Global News spoke to a homeless man who spent Sunday night walking around Vernon just to keep warm.

Okanagan service providers are scrambling to shelter people experiencing homelessness as temperatures plummet to -30 C Monday night, creating conditions ripe for frostbite.

In Kelowna, shelters are at capacity and operators are working with the Central Okanagan Journey Home Society to find additional emergency spaces.

The City of Kelowna says a total of 32 shelter beds will be added to the system Monday night, with additional mats provided at Cornerstone and the Salvation Army.

Cornerstone Shelter Services, which is operated by the John Howard Society of BC, has been at capacity for a year. The facility is located at 425 Leon Ave. and houses 80 people.

READ MORE: Services to be removed from Kelowna homeless shelter site: city

Executive director Dawn Himer said the society is recruiting additional staff to expand its services during the cold snap.

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“We are really concerned about the folks that are out there and that’s why we are trying to add additional staff and look for spaces and see if we can support that,” she said.

New homeless facility to be opened mid-December
New homeless facility to be opened mid-December

Himer said some people experiencing homelessness decline available services, but may warm up to the idea of a warming centre.

“That’s why I think the idea of having the warming centre is good because it’s kind of like, ‘I can drop in, get a cup of coffee, warm up, but I don’t have to leave my stuff and I don’t have to stay there,’ so I think for those individuals that’s a good solution,” she said.

READ MORE: Kelowna’s overnight tent sites inadequate, homeless people say

At Kelowna’s cold weather emergency shelter, the Welcome Inn, co-lead Tara Tschritter said it’s working with the Salvation Army to add emergency mats inside the shelter.

“It is extremely concerning considering the fact that we are really challenged with capacity here in Kelowna, as well as other communities in the Okanagan, so our shelter is currently full,” she said.

The emergency shelter opened on Jan. 2 and all 40 beds are full.

Kelowna residents petitioning against Knox Mountain homeless encampment site
Kelowna residents petitioning against Knox Mountain homeless encampment site

At the Kelowna Gospel Mission, 70 people sought shelter on Sunday night and four men walked in off the streets around 3:30 a.m. seeking respite from the biting cold.

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“They came in to stay warm,” said executive director Randy Benson.

“We are not going to let anybody freeze out there, that’s for sure.”

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“All of the service providers have been working with Journey Home to make sure that there is adequate shelter for everybody during this cold snap. We are working together on it,” he added.

READ MORE: Man at Kelowna’s Recreation Avenue homeless camp dies in hospital

Turning Points Collaborative Society in Vernon is responding to the cold snap by temporarily expanding its winter shelter program by five beds.

“It’s not that we are seeing an increase in our community of people experiencing homelessness, it is just that many people who have been sleeping rough are now looking to come in from the cold,” said Lisa Church, manager of the Gateway and temporary winter shelters.

Kelowna’s Gospel Mission director calls on city to take action as tent city grows, mayor says city doing all it can
Kelowna’s Gospel Mission director calls on city to take action as tent city grows, mayor says city doing all it can

“By expanding the temporary winter shelter program, we hope to accommodate the individuals wanting to come in from the cold.”

The Penticton and District Society for Community Living, overseen by BC Housing, operates the Compass House Shelter in Penticton.

It says the shelter has provided additional mats beyond the 50 beds that BC Housing currently funds and the housing authority is assessing if more spaces are needed.

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Compass House is a 30 bed, 24/7 temporary shelter which was relocated to a newly renovated location on Main St. last June.

As of Nov. 1, 2019, BC Housing has also been funding 20 additional temporary spaces at Compass House.

The 20 beds will remain open during the winter months until March 31.

Meanwhile, the South Okanagan Women in Need Society’s Contact Centre in Penticton will be extending their hours this week until 5:30 p.m. as a warming station.

The warming station is for women-only and has capacity for 10 people.

Environment Canada ended the snowfall and extreme cold warning on Monday morning, however the forecast shows a high of – 15 C in Kelowna with overnight lows of -30 C.

In Penticton, highs will reach – 12 C but it will feel like – 26 C with the wind chill and overnight lows of – 30 C. Environment Canada warns of the “risk of frostbite.”

In Vernon, temperatures will remain steady at – 19 C with a wind chill value of – 24 C and overnight lows of – 30 C.