Frigid temperatures push Winnipeg homeless shelter's capacity

The frigid weather that has iced over much of Manitoba has a Winnipeg homeless shelter expecting to pushed to its limits.

Highs of –19 C to –28 C expected with overnight lows of –27 C to –33 C

The City of Winnipeg is working with frontline agencies help those most vulnerable in this arctic chill. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The frigid weather that has iced over much of Manitoba has a Winnipeg homeless shelter expecting to be pushed to its limits.

"Nobody wants to even walk from their house to their car in some of the weather we're about to experience, so to imagine people having to sleep outside in that is really heart-wrenching," said Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud, executive director of 1JustCity.

The non-profit agency operates Just a Warm Sleep, an emergency shelter at Augustine United Church in Osborne Village, with room 25 people each night.

This past week, as temperatures began to move from mild to more January-like, there were about a dozen sleepers each night at the shelter, Blaikie Whitecloud said.

"But tonight we are expecting to see well into 20 or more," she said, noting many guests have said they will be telling friends about the shelter "and making sure they can be warm."

Environment Canada is calling for daytime highs of –19 C to –28 C for the remainder of the week with overnight lows of –27 C to –33 C. The wind chill, however, will make it feel more like –36 at times, especially overnight.

Normal temperatures for this time of year are a daytime high of –13 C and overnight low of –23 C.

Winnipeg is in the grips of its coldest stretch of the winter so far. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

"We'll be close to capacity for sure so our plan, which we have been doing, is to work in coordination with the West End 24 space [West End 24 Hour Safe Space for Youth] if we have people who are young enought to go there, and with the Salvation Army," said Blaikie Whitecloud.

Unlike some shelters, which refuse to admit people if they've had alcohol, Just a Warm Sleep tried to limit the barriers as much as possible.

Sobriety isn't mandatory for those staying the night, provided everyone is respectful and aren't using drugs or alcohol inside the space, while clients can also bring their dogs.

Many people in Winnipeg resort to sleeping in heated bus shelters as the temperature drops. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

"I just heard a story of somebody experiencing homelessness and their dog passed away because it froze to death outside," Blaikie Whitecloud said.

"I can't imagine how attached these folks are to their dogs. That dog is security, that dog is companionship, that dog is social health."

Those with furry companions have another area in the shelter, apart from the main space, to sleep.

For the shelter's first two years in operation, it opened only when temperatures slipped to –10 C or colder, but now in its third year, it is open every night until things start warming up at the end of March.

It has also picked up new funding, enabling it to hire a full-time housing coordinator to help people find places to live.

I just head a story of somebody experiencing homelessness and their dog passed away because it froze to death outside,- Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud

"We're still relying on donations to be open every night," Blaikie Whitecloud said. "But we're really happy to offer this service and make sure people have a chance to be safe."

Staff at Just a Warm Sleep will try hard to accomodate everyone but with space for only a couple of dozen, that's not always possible.

"So we'll work with those other services as much as possible, but some folks won't go other places," said Blaikie Whitecloud.

"That might be because they don't leave Osborne Village because it's their neighbourhood or because somebody they've had a conflict with is in one of those other spaces. But we will do what we can to not turn anyone away.

"Last year we got to over 25 [people] a couple of times only and I'm hoping that this year, if and when it happens, through End Homeless Winnipeg and working with those other sites, we'll make sure everyone has a warm place to be."

City of extreme weather

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said the city is also working with frontline agencies help those most vulnerable in this arctic chill.

The Extreme Weather Protocol, which sees city staff working with shelters to ensure people can get out of the cold, was put into place a couple of years ago.

"It helps coordinate amongst everybody involved and so we have city staff that meet regularly and are working proactively so these these discussions don't start when the temperature drops to –20 C, –30 C. These discussions are happening throughout the year," Bowman said.

Winnipeg is a city of extreme weather, both winter and summer, so it continues to put funding in place for those agencies, he said.

As frigid temperatures settle in, shelters prepare for a busy night

4 years ago
Duration 0:45
Agencies that help the homeless throughout Winnipeg are gearing up for busier nights now that the temperature is dropping.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.


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