Extreme cold exhausting for Winnipeg's homeless and those who help them

There are plenty of spaces available for Winnipeg's homeless during the current frigid temperatures, but the extreme weather wears on them and the people who work to help them.

Salvation Army mobile emergency unit says a core of 5 to stay out even in extreme conditions

Mark Stewart (left) and his team have been out nightly in these extreme temperatures looking for people who are caught out in the cold. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

As Environment Canada's extreme cold weather warning for southern  Manitoba continues, those who work with the homeless say the end of the cold snap can't come soon enough.

Mark Stewart, residential co-ordinator with the Salvation Army, was out all night Saturday with a crew in the mobile homeless outreach vehicle. Another team was out overnight Sunday into Monday when the windchills approached -41 C.

The forecast of warmer temperatures mid-week is a relief, he says.

"It absolutely is. I think that, including myself, my team needs a bit of a break," Stewart said.

"The cold, it wears on your body and on your mind, and working overnight shifts. And, I mean, I think it will be good for everyone including my staff."

The outreach vehicle gives people on the street a chance to get out of the cold, and the team helps them get to shelter if they need it or want it.

"Saturday night, brutally cold outside, but we didn't see a whole lot of people that we don't regularly see so it was more checking in on the people that we know that are already out there trying to brave it through the winter," Stewart said.

A small number of people prefer to stay outside even when the temperature plummets, he says.

"We know that at least five people that are in the community that are staying out for the winter. So we do try to support those people with food, with warm blankets and to support them," Stewart said.

"They're definitely allowed to get in the van and warm up, but generally they really don't want a lot of support from us so we just support them exactly where they are and try to convince them to come in from the cold — but it's not something that they want to do," Stewart said.

The Salvation Army's Booth Centre has 340 shelter beds available and could house as many as 500 people in an emergency, but so far it has not reached capacity even on the coldest night.

Siloam Mission's 110 beds have been full during the cold snap.

Luke Thiessen, the mission's communications manager, says that between its shelter, the Salvation Army and Main Street Project, even those on his waiting list are not left out in the cold.

Siloam changes some of its operating hours in these extreme temperatures to help as many as 400 people at a time stay warm.

"Our new drop-in and dining room — when it's not so cold we do close it for a period during the day for cleaning, but when it's this cold we keep it open and make sure there's that space for people," Thiessen said.

Both Siloam and the Salvation Army say there is a desperate need for men's winter gloves and long underwear.


Meaghan Ketcheson has been a reporter in Winnipeg for more than 25 years. You can reach her at or follow her on Twitter at @CBCMeaghanK.