British Columbia

New tuques, gloves critically needed as homeless battle deadly cold in Fort St. John, outreach worker says

Outreach worker Lisa Jewells says some people experiencing homelessness would rather brave the elements than risk contracting COVID-19 in a shelter.

'There are definitely still people sleeping outside. I'm scared': outreach worker Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell, an outreach and housing co-ordinator for the Fort St. John Women's Resource Society, says, 'there are definitely still people sleeping outside' in the northern B.C. city where freezing temperatures can put lives at risk. (Rogerio Barbosa/AFP via Getty Images)

Lisa Jewell is afraid.

As an outreach worker for the Fort St. John Women's Resource Society, Jewell says she has built strong relationships with people experiencing homelessness in the area and she knows right now their lives are under attack from two faceless enemies — a deadly virus and the deadly cold.

Environment Canada has issued an extreme cold weather alert for northern B.C., where temperatures with the wind chill have been below –40 C this week. Jewell is also alerting Fort St. John locals that donations of new gloves, tuques and socks are critically needed for people sleeping outside under such conditions.

"We are northerners, we protect our own," said Jewell, speaking Tuesday to Carolina de Ryk, the host of CBC's Daybreak North.

Used clothing is currently not being accepted because of COVID-19 concerns.

'The devil you know'

Jewell said the cold is nothing new, but the virus means people who, in past winters, had access to fast food restaurants, churches or other indoor spaces where they can warm up, no longer do.

According to Jewell, the city has only one shelter and even if space is available, some people are choosing to brave the outdoors rather than risk contracting the virus indoors.

"People are actually choosing to go build a little lean-to and try to be by themselves rather than going into the shelter," she said. "The cold is the devil you know."

According to Environment Canada, with the wind chill, Tuesday's temperatures felt like –43 C in Fort St. John. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Jewell said staff at the resource society, located at 10051 100 Ave., have set up a hot beverage and hand warming station outside the building as indoor access is restricted because of COVID. 

 "We are dressing people up as they walk by," she said, also noting the need for hats and gloves.

Frostbite can develop within minutes on exposed skin under such frigid conditions.

Deadly cold

About 60 kilometres south, in Dawson Creek, B.C., local RCMP say a woman was found dead outside her home early Sunday morning having succumbed to the cold after walking home from a neighbour's house. 

Temperatures had dropped below –41 C in Dawson Creek Sunday. According to Environment Canada, Tuesday temperatures felt like –43 C  with the wind chill.

"There are definitely still people sleeping outside," said Jewell. "I'm scared."

She said more supportive housing is a possible long-term solution but that is in the "easier said than done category" and right now, protecting people from frostbite, or worse, is her primary focus.

And she is hoping others rally to help too.

"Please donate to your favourite organization ... those people are going to know who needs it the most," she said.

Donations of new tuques, gloves and socks can be made to the Fort St. John Women's Resource Society on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays.

Doors are locked because of the virus so donors are asked to call 250-787-1121 or knock when they arrive.

With files from Daybreak North


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?