British Columbia

Deadly cold claims lives, prompts calls for better shelter system in northern B.C.

Temperatures plunged to below -30 C overnight in the central Interior. But not everyone on the streets is able or willing to seek shelter, even in the coldest days of winter.

Fear of COVID, lack of co-ed beds, no space for using drugs keeping people away from shelters, advocate says

People gather for warmth outside a closed service provider in Prince George, B.C. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Another life has been lost due to frigid temperatures in northern B.C. this week.

The BC Coroners Service has confirmed a death in the past week that matches the description and location of a social media post stating the cold had claimed the life of someone sleeping on the street in Prince George, B.C. The coroners service did not confirm whether the person was homeless or provide any other details, citing privacy. 

It is the second confirmed death due to cold weather in the north this week after a woman, who wasn't homeless, was found dead by RCMP in Dawson Creek. It is believed she was returning home from visiting a neighbour.

This week's cold snap, which saw temperatures across the central and northern Interior drop to below –30 C, has left service providers scrambling to get homeless people indoors and prompted calls for changes as some people in the region continue to sleep outside, despite the risks.

Among those still outside is Rob Badger, who said he would rather take his chances on the streets than move into one of the more than 100 shelter beds available in Prince George.

"There's COVID inside," he said. "We know how to survive out here."

Fears of COVID-19, drug dependency and couples' desire to stay together are among the barriers to people accessing shelters in the city, said Coral Henry, who has spent this week's cold snap speaking to people sleeping outdoors as she distributes blankets and warm clothes throughout Prince George.

Coral Henry has been spending her nights distributing blankets and warm clothes to people sleeping on the streets in Prince George, B.C. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

"I have seen people in tears," she said. "There was a man and woman, they were holding each other, sitting on each other's feet, blowing on each other's feet," she said. "And the woman said, 'I don't want to die like this.'"

Henry says, as someone who was homeless for three years, "I know what it's like to be on the other side."

Henry says she was a heroin user when she was a teenager. It was a dependency that prevented her from accessing shelters that require people to stay sober when they check in, she says — and even when the temperature plunged, the pain of not using was worse.

"It's awful," she said. "Everything aches, you shake."

Henry said she wants spaces to open that address the needs of people who cannot or will not use existing shelters, which may include separated units for those who worry about COVID-19, co-ed beds for couples, and a site that allows people to access and use drugs.

"I know a lot of people are not comfortable with that, but that's the hard reality," she said. "People are going to use regardless."

A homeless camp in Prince George, B.C. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Malachy Tohill, B.C. Housing's regional director for northern British Columbia, said outreach groups in Prince George are doing all they can to accommodate people's needs. Co-ed beds have been opened and a locker program is in place so people can store their belongings without fear of losing them.

But, he said, despite those efforts, some people still choose to face the cold.

"We can't force them to come inside," he said. "As sad as it is, there's a group of individuals out there who do not want to go in."

Tohill said COVID-19 protocols are in place and more than 30 additional spaces have opened up this winter compared to last year to ensure physical distancing protocls can be followed.

He also said he's been checking in with shelter workers every morning and has been assured no one is being turned away, and that spaces are still available in the 161 overnight beds B.C. Housing helps provide in Prince George.

Beyond that, he said outreach workers are going out every night to make sure people camping out know they can come indoors, even offering them a ride to the spaces they need.

"We do not want people staying outside in this cold weather," he said.

Naloxone kits and training available at a harm reduction site in Prince George, B.C. According to the BC Coroners Service, the city had one of the highest illicit drug overdose death rates in the province from 2018 to the end of 2020. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

But on her rounds, Henry said she's still encountering people who tell her they've been turned away from warm beds.

She's encouraging the city to come up with a broader plan to make sure nobody is sleeping on the streets. For its part, the city has launched a program to better understand poverty in the community and work with service providers to fill missing gaps.

That's the sort of work Henry hopes will lead to change, because right now, she says, a lack of options for people living with addiction, poverty or mental health issues are putting lives at risk — not just in the cold, but year round.

"And all we're doing is going around this merry-go-round instead of stepping off it and making a change," she said.

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in unceded Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.

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