British Columbia

Extreme weather creating unprecedented demand and challenges for shelters in B.C.

Shelters in Abbotsford and Vancouver say extreme weather is creating higher demand for beds and not all those needs are being met.

'We have no choice but to turn folks away': Union Gospel Mission

At the height of November's heavy rainfall, the Union Gospel Mission in Vancouver had to turn away 19 people in a single night. (Nadia Tchoumi)

Flooding and extreme weather conditions this fall are taking a toll on vulnerable populations and shelters in British Columbia.

The Cyrus Centre in Abbotsford is working with youth displaced by flooding in the Fraser Valley.

Executive director Les Talvio says shelter staff have also been displaced from their homes, separated from families and experienced losses.

"Honestly, it's really wearing on the staff and the volunteers. We have seen needs like we've never seen before," said Talvio.

Penny's Place, a women's shelter in Abbotsford, is receiving 10 to 15 calls a day from vulnerable people impacted by floods, says Abby Mann, the program co-ordinator for Penny's Place.

"They have had camps kind of where the floods have affected them, so they are seeking extreme weather [shelters] and calling us more often," said Mann. 

She says the extreme weather shelter at Penny's Place is now open every day due to the flooding and is full. 

Penny's Place, a womens shelter in Abbotsford, says it has received 10-15 calls a day for those impacted by flooding in the Fraser Valley. The shelter has three extreme weather beds. (Abby Mann)

Record Demand in Abbotsford 

Jesse Wegenast, the extreme weather response co-ordinator for Abbotsford shelters, says the demand is unprecedented.

"We are setting records for the number of people sleeping in shelters on a nightly basis, as we have over 200 in shelters every night."

Even though more beds and shelters have been added in Abbotsford, he says they were stretched thin before the floods.

"Where we struggle is that we have also seen tremendous growth in the number of people who are unhoused," he said. 

Six years ago, there may have been around 50 beds available in Abbotsford. Now, there are 170 beds, but demand is still higher than the number of beds available, he says.

Staff stretched thin

While staff are keen to be there for those that need it most, staffing issues are becoming problematic, says Wegenast. 

During the floods some staff were unable to make it to work.

"We're seeing burnout among volunteer staff, particularly here in the valley ... so we're leaning more heavily on some individuals," he said.

Extreme weather shelters are especially vulnerable to staff burnout as they are primarily run by volunteers or seasonal staff. (Jesse Wegenast)

Colder weather increasing shelter demand

The long stretch of inclement weather is forcing shelters to turn people in need away in other areas of the Lower Mainland as well. 

During this month's heavy rainfall, upwards of 19 people were turned away in a single night at the Union Gospel Mission in Vancouver, which has 92 beds. 

"This is a position no organization wants to find itself in," says Nadia Tchoumi, media relations and communications manager. 

The shelter has  made 20 additional spaces permanent since last year. However, the need for shelter beds is outpacing what is available, especially during extreme weather events. 

"We have no choice but to turn folks away," she said. 

The Union Gospel Mission hired additional overnight permanent staff last year to help with the demand. However, accommodation concerns remain with colder weather inching closer.

"Between the deadly heat dome to heavy rain and flooding ... extreme weather is incredibly dangerous for those without a roof over their heads."

Donations help prepare for colder weather

Donations can go a long way to help those in need in the colder months, shelter operators say. This includes wet and cold-weather gear from blankets, socks, shoes, hand warmers and foot powder to jackets. 

Shelters say donations such as blankets, hand warmers, and socks, can help those in need as weather gets colder. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Back in Abbotsford, Talvio says the Cyrus Centre is also looking for more volunteers. 

While community support and generosity are instrumental to shelters, Wegenast says it's important to reach out to elected officials to continue to support those most vulnerable with increased housing resources.

"A person who is homeless is only homeless until they are housed, right? I can't stress this enough."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Baneet Braich

CBC Journalist

Baneet Braich is a journalist with CBC News. Connect with her at baneet.braich@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @Baneet_Braich

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