Shelters prepare warm welcome as Manitoba winter increases demand

With the arrival of winter, emergency shelters are seeing an increase in the number of people at their doors. In order to prepare for the season, non-profit organizations are asking for more clothing donations, adding beds to their space, and bringing people inside through outreach vans.

With temperatures dropping, shelters are seeing more people at their doors

A temporary shelter set up in a back lane outside a Tim Hortons coffee shop in Winnipeg earlier this week. With winter temperatures arriving earlier than normal, Winnipeg's shelters are gearing up to help those threatened by the cold in the city. (Submitted)

Many Winnipeggers had to break out winter coats and snow shovels a bit earlier than usual, with unseasonably cold temperatures hitting in the past week.

But for others in the city, far more serious concerns come along with the early arrival of winter weather.

Emergency shelters have already started seeing an increase in the number of people at their doors. In order to prepare for the season, non-profit organizations are asking for clothing donations, adding beds to their shelter spaces and bringing people inside through outreach vans.

Mark Stewart, the residential manager at the Salvation Army, says it has recently had to add 35 extra beds to accommodate people showing up at the building because of the cold weather. He said the agency started its cold-weather program last week. 

"Our 'cold weather' program starts when it's –10 degrees outside," Stewart said. "When it's –10, we don't turn anybody away. It doesn't matter what your situation is or if you're intoxicated … we just want to get you in from the cold." 

Lows in Winnipeg this week were forecast in the –10 to –15 range.

The Salvation Army's extra 35 beds are for what's considered "one-day" check-ins, said Stewart. 

The shelter's regular 196 beds, which accommodate clients transitioning out of homelessness, are currently occupied. With the cold-weather program launched, the Salvation Army is continuing to add more beds to house the increased demand.

"We're prepared to add as many as we need to," said Stewart. 

He said the agency has also started using its outreach vans, which staff drive around on days where temperatures drop below –15, to pick up homeless people and bring them inside. 

"We've been driving around the community over the last three days," said Stewart. "We've had 60 contacts and transported approximately 15 people back to emergency shelters at bus shacks who weren't able to make it back on their own." 

Stewart said the number of people they were able to bring back through the vans has been "phenomenal." He said in comparison to this time last year, the van patrol has seen an increase of 10 people nightly. 

Siloam wait list grows as temperatures drop

However, not all shelters have a cold-weather program.

Luke Thiessen, communications manager at the Siloam Mission shelter on Princess Street, said it has 110 beds in total and all of them are full. 

"Our wait list ranges anywhere between 15 to 40 people and unfortunately it goes up as the temperature drops," Thiessen said. 

On Monday, Siloam Mission had 18 people on the list. Thiessen said when the shelter is unable to accommodate everybody, it directs people to other shelters such as the Salvation Army or Main Street Project. 

He said the things needed most at the shelters right now are winter coats. 

"People can come in and they have a warm place to sleep, but they might not have a winter jacket or snow boots to walk around in the snowfall. That's a big thing," he said. "To not have that outside, it's also a safety risk for them as well." 

Lauren Ferguson runs the Siloam Mission clothing program, which operates as a retail store where people can set-up appointments to pick out a few free outfits. 

She said approximately 90 people enter the store each day. 

"If we have 80 [donated] jackets hanging up, those can all potentially be gone in a day," said Ferguson. 

An appeal for coats

Jennifer Giesbrecht, the community support manager at Macdonald Youth Services, and her team are gearing up for their annual donation drive, where they're collecting warm clothing for youth in their programs — some of whom are homeless.

She said she hopes people will consider donating only what they would wear themselves.

"Sometimes we get donations of very used equipment … you know, zippers broken, holes. We don't want to give kids that kind of stuff because there is also that pride behind it," she said.

"We want to give kids something they can be proud of and feel comfortable wearing." 

The Macdonald Youth Services shelter, which is for children age 12 to 17, is "always busy" and "at full capacity" no matter what the weather situation is, she said. And when the teens hit 18, they are not comfortable with going to the busy shelters. 

She said there needs to be a separate shelter for homeless people who are between the ages of 18 to 25 because they have unique needs. 

"Siloam Mission and Salvation Army are awesome resources but when you are 18 and 19, you're very young. They'd rather stay outside or couch-surf with someone than stay at those shelters," said Giesbrecht. 

"We've always seen a need," she said. "There's never been a decrease in it."