Shelter van rescues dozens of homeless people from frigid streets

A Winnipeg shelter's patrol van was used to rescue dozens of people from sleeping outside in frigid temperatures this past weekend.

Van only being used on coldest nights while Main Street Project seeks more funding

The Main Street Project outreach van is back on Winnipeg streets on an emergency basis.

A Winnipeg shelter's patrol van was used to rescue dozens of people sleeping outside in frigid temperatures this past weekend.

On just one of those nights, 20 people were taken to the Main Street Project and other places, said Rick Lees, executive director of the shelter.

"We just had to be out there. In those temperatures people don't survive very long," he said.

The van, which cruises the downtown and North End, was brought out last week for the first time in six years. A funding crunch had forced the shelter to park it and focus on other programs.

But the recent deep freeze, which brought a wind chill that made it feel near –40 at times and was blamed for the death of one person, forced shelter officials to put it back into action.

On Dec. 11, a 53-year-old woman died after being found unconscious on the ground in downtown Winnipeg after a night when the wind chill dipped to –32.

A few hours earlier, firefighters had responded to the same block after a call about "multiple people that were frozen," said Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg.

Right after that tragedy, Main Street Project joined forces with the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ Community Homeless Assistance Team to staff the van. The BIZ has provided $35,000 in funding, but that's not enough to keep the van running as often as it's needed.

For now, the van is only being used on the coldest nights while Lees searches for more funding. It's better than leaving it parked until full funding can be found, he said.

"Right now we feel the safety of the public is more important, so we're going to keep going, at least in the extreme colds."

The patrol service is operated by two Main Street staffers and an outreach worker from the Downtown BIZ.

They drive around areas where people are known to go at night to try to stay warm, Lees said, adding they find them in doorways, under bridges, behind dumpsters, inside dumpsters — anywhere that blocks the wind.

There were times on the weekend when the van crew came across people who didn't want to go with them, Lees said.

In those instances, the crew hands out blankets and clothes and returns check on the people every half hour to make sure they're still OK.

Fortunately, for those who sleep on the streets and for the Main Street Project's budget, there is some relief from the deep freeze.

Temperatures are expected to improve by 20 degrees this week, compared to last.

The wind chill warnings have been lifted and the daytime highs should be well above normal for this time of year — at least for a few days.