With temperatures consistently in the negative double digits, emergency shelters are over capacity. But that's not stopping Good Shepherd shelters from providing people with a warm place to stay — even if it means having them sleep in chairs.

'When you run out of beds, you take advantage of everything you got.' - Alan Whittle, Good Shepherd

"Because we're not turning anyone away, we will be making arrangements as necessary," said Alan Whittle, director of community relations for Good Shepherd.

That includes people sleeping on chairs, or cots, to stay warm indoors.

"When you run out of beds, you take advantage of everything you got," said Whittle.

Hamilton has been under an ongoing cold alert since Christmas Monday. The cold alert will be in place when temperatures dip below -15 C.

Whittle says all five emergency shelters have been operating at an "elevated" level of over capacity since temperatures started to drop earlier in the month.

Good Shepherd Mary Street December 2017

The Good Shepherd on Mary Street encourages anybody who needs shelter to go to their front door. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

Combined, there are about 200 beds, and Whittle says they're all occupied and beyond.

'We don't want to see anybody suffering in this cold weather.' - Brother Nicholas Foran, Good Shepherd

Although it's natural for people to seek shelter during harsher weather conditions, Whittle says Good Shepherd as been running at capacity or slightly over for much of the year.

Whittle says the numbers aren't "dramatic," but they're up.

One exception has been the youth shelter. That's operated at around 75 to 80 per cent capacity this year, which is a "good" operating level, says Whittle. The shelter reached capacity just before Christmas.

Getting people out of the cold

People are welcome into the shelter at any time and are offered three meals a day.

Good Shepherd Thanksgiving dinner

"The real solution to this is not more emergency beds, but more affordable housing," says Alan Whittle of Good Shepherd. (Sunnie Huang/CBC)

Brother Nicholas Foran of the Good Shepherd Centre, located at 135 Mary St., says they'll go over capacity to keep people off the streets and into a warm environment. 

'The real solution to this is not more emergency beds, but more affordable housing.' - Alan Whittle

"We don't want to see anybody suffering in this cold weather," said Foran. "So anything we can do to ease that suffering, if it's coming in here for a few hours, if it's coming in here overnight, if it's coffee or hot tea, [or] to provide comfort."

Foran predicts more people will visit in the coming weeks.

"It's that time of the month now where there's still a few dollars in people's pockets, so they're not immediately coming to us," said Foran. "But I would imagine next week, we'll be busier than we are this week."

Foran encourages anyone who needs to be housed or sheltered to come to Good Shepherd.

Hamilton needs long-term solutions

Shelters offer people a place for the interim, Whittle says, but they shouldn't be an end point.

"We need to see shelters not as a destination, but as instead a transitional place, because really, it is about finding people proper housing," said Whittle.

He believes more affordable housing is essential to solving the issue.

"The real solution to this is not more emergency beds, but more affordable housing because that's really the problem that we're seeing," said Whittle. "We're not able to move people fast enough out of shelters into permanent housing, so that's really the longer-term goal."

In the meantime, Whittle thinks changes need to be made if numbers continue to climb.

"If we continue to operate at this heightened level of over capacity for an extended period of time, it perhaps does become necessary for the city to open additional shelter beds somewhere. You just can't operate a shelter over capacity all the time."