British Columbia

Vancouver's extreme weather shelters filling up as temperatures plunge

Vancouver's unusual cold snap presents unique challenges for those living on the streets.

As Vancouver's cold snap continues, concerns rise for those trying to survive on the streets

According to the 2016 homeless count conducted in March, there are more than 1,800 homeless people in Vancouver. (CBC)

While many Vancouverites are bundling up and complaining on social media about an unusually cold December, the freezing temperatures create a much more serious problem for Vancouver's homeless population.

In an attempt to keep people out of the cold during freezing nights, Vancouver's emergency shelters have been activated for two full weeks, a much longer period than usual.

Sean Spear of RainCity Housing said the Hornby street shelter that opened just two weeks ago has been filling up within 20 minutes of opening. 

The Commercial Drive shelter has been reaching capacity "almost immediately."

"We have been very busy," Spear said. "Our shelters have been full and they fill up right away. We're just trying to get people out of the cold.". 

According to BC Housing there are 935 year-round shelter beds available in the city of Vancouver. When extreme weather shelters are activated, around 445 extra spaces are created.

According to the 2016 homeless count, there are 1,847 homeless people living in the city of Vancouver — a 10-year high.

'Lives are at risk'

The cold snap has already claimed several lives across the province. 

A 51-year old homeless woman in Chilliwack died on Friday morning after a build-up of snow caused her tent to collapse.

The B.C. Coroners Service is currently investigating two deaths in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region and one in the upper Fraser Valley that may have been caused by the cold weather.

DJ Larkin, a staff lawyer at Pivot Legal Society, is calling on the city to open up community centres and create heating centres where people can get warm and dry.

Larkin is also advocating for people without housing to be allowed to ride public transit for free without being harassed so they can stay out of the cold during the day.

"Lives are at risk today. We are very, very worried that people will be lost because of the conditions, even with the winter shelters open and with the emergency weather protocol on, there aren't enough spaces for people," she said. 

This 40-bed shelter on Hornby street has been filling up within 20 minutes. (CBC)

'You always say they're full'

Spear said that people without housing often hear about shelter spaces through word of mouth, or consult BC Housing's lists of spaces.

They can also call BC211, an information and referral service where call takers like Janette Razon try to help them navigate the system.

"This one man who called, he said, 'Do you know how it is to walk around downtown Vancouver all day with a suitcase and your feet are wet?' " Razon said.

 "He told me, 'I always call you to ask about shelters, you always say they're full.' "

She said call takers sometimes find themselves asking the caller to hand their phones to a barista or bus driver to help negotiate a place for them to get warm.

"You ask them, 'Can you get on a bus, can you sit in a coffee shop nearby?' " she said.

Larkin said the city must step up to provide homeless people with resources in their area.

"Being told to try and go to a shelter across town is like telling someone to go to Mars when it's minus ten, it's late at night and they don't have money for transit," she said.

Why some prefer the streets

Rebecca Bell, manager of the Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy said the issue is not always the availability of beds, because BC Housing has the ability to expand the number of spaces when needed.

"While the emergency cold weather shelters get people out of the cold, the reality is that when people walk out the next morning, they're still homeless. It's a temporary solution," Bell said.

Some people without housing choose to brave the streets because of negative experiences they've had in shelters.

While they do provide cots or mattresses, and a warm snack or meal, they often have little privacy, no safe space to lock personal belongings, or are not pet-friendly. 

A homeless man named Kevin told CBC News that even when the temperatures plunge below zero, he prefers to brave the night on the street than access a shelter.

"Each time I've stayed there I've had something stolen. It's cut throat," he said.

Environment Canada has issued a special weather statement for Vancouver, with frigid temperatures expected to continue throughout December.

With files from Jason d'Souza