Edmonton homeless agencies coping with increased demand during cold snap

Edmonton homeless shelters are expanding capacity to meet the growing demand as temperatures plunge well below zero. They’re asking Edmontonians to keep an eye out for the vulnerable.

‘We’re really hoping that everyone in the community can just be keeping an eye out for vulnerable neighbours'

Edmonton agencies that provide assistance to the homeless are trying to make sure everyone has a warm place to go during the cold weather. (CBC News/Nathan Gross)

A sudden cold snap in Edmonton has agencies that operate homeless shelters preparing and expanding capacity for the anticipated demand.

Lauren Reid with Hope Mission said they are seeing more people seeking out shelter. With the plummeting temperatures, the major concern right now is hypothermia and frostbite.

"Not only can it go towards people, unfortunately maybe losing fingers or toes, which causes them to be even more vulnerable and experience mobility struggles, but on top of that it can lead to infection," she explained.

"We're really hoping that everyone in the community can just be keeping an eye out for vulnerable neighbours right now."

Reid is asking Edmontonians to call 211 and dial extension 3 if they spot someone who might be in distress or inadequately dressed.

"That will activate our crisis diversion unit, they will give us a call at Hope Mission and send out one of our 24/7 rescue vans, and we'll make sure they get whatever care they require in order to stay safe," she said.

In addition to keeping an eye out for the vulnerable, Reid said there are other things the average Edmontonian can do to help, like having tuques or mittens in their vehicles as well as dry goods like granola bars.

The Boyle Street Community Services warming bus provides transportation and a safe place for the homeless during the winter. (Submitted by Boyle Street Community Services)

Boyle Street Community Services has increased its day shelter capacity as a result of the weather. Spokesperson Kassidy Green said making information available is crucial when it gets really cold. 

"Our major concern is really the safety and health of those folks in ensuring that they have the right information on where they can go into places and stay warm," she said. 

"Also where they can access those crucial things like gloves, tuques, socks, good winter boots, good winter clothing, that can really prevent severe frostbite at this time of year."

Kassidy said their winter warming bus is also available.

"The bus travels to lots of places that people might frequent like other drop-ins, shelters or agencies," she explained. 

"So people can get on, take the bus as a ride to those different places that they might need to access, but they can also just get on to warm up and we usually have sandwiches and hot coffee."

The Bissell Centre has also increased capacity at its day shelter, and will stay open 24 hours a day over the weekend.

"Normally we operate day services and then people shuffle back to shelters or other spaces where they have that 24/7 care," said spokesperson Scarlet Bjornson. "So this is rare, this is new."

On Thursday, The Mustard Seed opened a temporary overnight shelter on the west side of Commonwealth Stadium. 

Mustard Seed Spokesperson Kris Knutson said it was originally slated to open on Monday but the date was moved up to help meet the increased demand. 

"We opened up to a capacity of 50 last night but we actually took in 64 because we just will not turn anyone away," he said. "We just need to make sure that everybody gets out of the cold."

Sleeping pads are laid out at The Mustard Seed's temporary shelter in Commonwealth Stadium, which opened on Thursday. (Submitted by The Mustard Seed)

On Friday, Alberta Health Services Spokesperson Kerry Williamson said EMS had responded to 21 calls in the Edmonton area in the past week specific to cold emergencies, including frostbite and hypothermia. 

"It has been extremely busy for EMS crews the last few weeks due to weather related calls and we are grateful for their hard work and dedication during these challenging circumstances," he said.