Finding meth addicts wandering in bitter cold becoming common for Salvation Army warming van staff

The Salvation Army is keeping watch on some of Winnipeg's most vulnerable in a special truck every night and staff are frequently finding people struggling during wee hours in the frigid cold.

CBC ride along with Salvation Army warming van on a night that saw the temperature dip to –24 C

Staci Stewart pulled over the Salvation Army's special cold weather vehicle to check on this homeless man staying warm outside Winnipeg's city hall. (Tanner Grywinski/CBC)

His feet are shivering and his are legs are shaking. The 21-year-old — who CBC News is calling Tom — is high on meth and has been out in Winnipeg's frigid cold for over an hour, walking city streets.

It's 1:30 a.m. and Tom's feet are so cold he can barely get them out of his boots, even when he's put in the old heated ambulance that's stopped to help him. It's –24 C but feels like –35 with the wind.

Tom is barely awake and shakes as Salvation Army staff try to put warmer socks on him and wrap his feet with blankets.

"I don't want to walk home," he says with fear in his voice.

Staci Stewart is driving this night and isn't about to let him walk home.

Tom is the reason Stewart and her partner, Sidney Barnes, a retired veteran, are out nightly driving around in the Salvation Army's extreme cold weather vehicle. CBC News joined them for a ride-along on Tuesday night.

It's still early in the night and the team has already come across half a dozen people out in the cold by driving around the city's West End, Exchange District and North End.

Tom is by far the one in the worst shape even though it's warmer than just a week ago when it would have felt like –40 in the city. 

"Last week when it was really cold, in the –40s, we had people running up to the van because their toes were so frozen they couldn't feel them," Stewart says.

She and Barnes made a startling discovery under a blanket on the ground next to a woman in distress on Selkirk Avenue.

Inside the blanket — a one-year-old girl covered with bedbugs.

Salvation Army staff stop on Selkirk Avenue where they found a mother with a one-year-old girl in the cold last week. (Tanner Grywinski/CBC)

"The baby just had a diaper on and no other clothes," Stewart says. "When you asked what to expect for the evening, like, you just don't know."

Stewart called for backup and paramedics and child welfare authorities arrived.

They haven't come across any kids out on the street this night.

Inside the warming van, the Salvation Army's Mark Stewart talks to Tom while the team drives him home.

Sidney Barnes is out nightly on Winnipeg streets driving around in the Salvation Army`s extreme cold weather vehicle. He's a retired veteran. (Tanner Grywinski/CBC)

Tom says he wants to get clean but he knows it'll be hard. He's been shooting up since he was 17 and had his first hit at a downtown club. He hasn't slept for 10 days, he says.

"My mom is scared for me," he says.

Stewart gives Tom a hug goodbye outside his building.

Running into people in the cold high on meth during their nightly rounds in the city has become very common, says Stewart.

But finding the young man in the cold this night could actually be a good thing.

"Maybe us just bumping into [him in] the middle of the night is an opportunity for him to possibly thinking about quitting or going into treatment," says Stewart.

CBC ride along with Salvation Army warming van on a night that saw the temperature dip to –24 C 3:09

About the Author

Austin Grabish

Reporter

Austin Grabish landed his first byline when he was just 18. Before joining CBC, he reported for several outlets with work running across the country. He studied human rights in university and holds a degree and diploma in communications. Connect with him here: austin.grabish@cbc.ca