Edmonton

Edmonton homeless shelter sees uptick in demand as temperatures plunge

Edmonton’s homeless population is struggling to take shelter as extreme cold weather rolls its way into the province.

Boyle Street Community Services has seen 300 people come through its doors each day since holidays began

In its 2016 homelessness count, the Homeless Hub estimated 1,752 people were living without a home in Edmonton. (CBC)

Edmonton's homeless population is struggling to take shelter as extreme cold weather rolls its way into the province.

Boyle Street Community Services has seen 300 people coming through its doors every day since the holiday season started, an increase in demand from previous years, spokesperson Elliott Tanti told CBC News Wednesday.

We're pushing it...our capacity. This year's been particularly challenging because of how many people we've seen through our doors.- Elliott Tanti, Boyle Street Community Services

Temperatures were expected to plummet across the province Wednesday night in Edmonton and much of north and central Alberta.

The cold snap started on Christmas Eve and will continue into the New Year, Environment Canada meteorologist Dan Kulak told CBC News.

In its 2016 homelessness count, the Homeless Hub estimated 1,752 people were living without a home in Edmonton.

Extreme temperatures life-threatening to homeless community

When staff at Boyle Street Community Services got word of the cold snap on Christmas Eve, they started alerting everyone they could find through social media posts and announcements over the sound system in the shelter.

"It can come as quite a shock especially … if it happens quite suddenly, as we saw," Tanti said.

Those who don't hear the message directly will often hear it from their peers. Tanti said the homeless community has a "resiliency" during the winter months.

But the message alone is not enough to help homeless people prepare for quick changes in weather patterns. Not having thicker socks and jackets, Tanti said, can result in people getting hypothermia and frostbite to their extremities.

Sometimes, the homeless cannot find a place to spend the night. Homeward Trust CEO Susan McGee said that is when it starts to get dangerous.

"They find a shed, a garage to sleep in … and they think it's going to be safe enough for them, but in these temperatures, it definitely is not," McGee said Wednesday.

This kind of temperature is life-threatening to anybody, let alone somebody with no place to live.- Susan McGee, Homeward Trust

"This kind of temperature is life-threatening to anybody, let alone somebody with no place to live."

Hope Mission's 24/7 crisis diversion team receives up to 30 calls on average per shift for assistance from Edmonton police and concerned citizens, Hope Mission spokesperson Robin Padanyi said.

On one call, volunteers found a homeless man walking barefoot through back alleys.

While Hope Mission has not yet reached capacity, Padanyi said hundreds are staying in the shelter overnight and many more are taking advantage of the rooms at the shelter during the day.

Central LRT station a 'back-up plan' for emergencies

The city's backup plan is to keep the Central LRT station open from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. to serve as a last-resort shelter during extreme cold weather.

Homeward Trust is supposed to call an extreme weather emergency when temperatures drop below –20 or below (with windchill) and shelters are at more than 90-per-cent occupancy. 

"It's anticipated local shelters will be able to handle demand for beds during most, if not all, extreme weather events," the city said in a press release last week.

"We've had experiences in our city when consistently the shelters have been full and there isn't enough room," McGee said.

She said the city should continue to focus on creating long-term housing solutions for Edmonton's homeless population, which would further decrease the need for an emergency backup plan.

Despite the wave of Arctic air that's been blowing through Edmonton the last few days, city officials have not yet given the green light to keeping the LRT station open overnight.

anna.desmarais@cbc.ca

@anna_desmarais

With files from Lydia Neufeld

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