Extreme cold increases demand for Calgary homeless services

The current extreme cold weather in southern Alberta has increased demands on Calgary shelters and homeless outreach services.

Priorities for shelters and outreach workers shift to basic safety for those living in the cold

Outreach team lead at Alpha House Dean Meek says during cold weather he sees clients with frostbite or exposure injuries. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Support services for Calgary's homeless population are being stretched as plunging temperatures in the city increase demand on shelters and outreach programs.

The temperature dipped to –29 C in Calgary early Friday morning, and dropped as low as –34 in southern Alberta, and Environment Canada issued warnings of wind chills that could near –40.

The Mustard Seed has started opening their shelter doors earlier in the day due to the cold, offering a lunchtime meal when they would otherwise be closed.

"People that would otherwise stay outside just come in because there's no other choice," said Diana Camelo, communications specialist with the Mustard Seed in Calgary. "That also means that our staff are also working harder to ensure that everyone is safe."

Camelo estimates they've served up to 150 additional lunches daily during the cold weather. 

"When it's so many people in close quarters things can get really uncomfortable," explained Camelo. "So [staff] will do things like games and movies ... to keep everyone entertained and safe inside."

Helping people living in camps around Calgary is more important in cold weather for staff at Alpha House, working on the encampment team with the Downtown Outreach Addictions Program.

"The priority changes, first and foremost to be more about safety than anything else," said outreach worker Kevin Fuglewicz.

Staff with the Downtown Outreach Addictions Program reach out to people living in camps like the ones pictured here, to make sure their inhabitants are safe as the temperature drops. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

The encampment team reaches out to people living in camps around the city. While they collaborate with housing service providers in Calgary, during a cold snap they prioritize checking camps and those who live in them to make sure they are still okay as the mercury plunges.

"When it's like this, and the snow is this deep and [a] camp could collapse ...  then we're worried about making sure that he's okay, he's warm, he's fed and that the basic needs are met," said Fuglewicz.

There is also concern that drug use — specifically meth — increases among those living in camps when extreme cold hits.

"It ... keeps you awake," explained Fuglewicz. "Instead of sleeping, it's 'I'm going to stay awake and I'm warm and I'm moving.'"

"They get into a state where you can't reason with someone as much and it's a lot harder to actually have those conversations when we go to engage with them at their camps." added Fuglewicz.

Frostbite, numbness

Health fears add to safety concerns for those living in camps. 

"We're seeing a lot more people coming in with frostbite or complaints of numbness and limbs. It's a pretty epidemic thing happening right now," said Dean Meek, outreach team lead at Alpha House.

Alpha House says if you think you've seen someone at a camp who needs help, call their Encampment Team at 403-805-7388. As an alternative, if you spot someone outside who might need help and the situation doesn't appear to be  life-threatening, you can call 311. If the situation appears to be an emergency or dangerous, call 911.