Montreal's homeless shelters begin winter protocol early as cold snap hits city

The shelters are seeking donations of cash and warm clothing to help the city's most vulnerable.

Additional staffing and beds made available, stretching resources further

Premier François Legault says there are enough shelters and warming centres to help the homeless avoid breaking curfew. Community groups disagree. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Winter has come early to Montreal, and the dropping temperatures have the city's homeless shelters already at capacity.

The cold weather has prompted shelters to begin their winter protocol ahead of schedule, providing additional beds and staff to help with the influx of clients.

"We're Montrealers. We know winter is coming, but it seems to have arrived earlier than we're accustomed to," Old Brewery Mission CEO Matthew Pearce said on CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

The wind chill left the city feeling like –27 as the sun rose Thursday morning.

For those spending the night on the streets, the frigid weather can prove fatal.

The mission is seeking donations of warm clothing such as coats, boots, gloves, scarves and socks as well as cash donations which are eligible for tax receipts.

Clothing can be dropped off at the mission's main pavilion. Cash donations can be made in person and online.

Pearce said his shelter, along with the Welcome Hall Mission and Maison du Père, are already full — raising concerns over whether the shelters will be able to accommodate everyone in need as winter sets in.

While clothing donations are appreciated, Welcome Hall Mission CEO Sam Watts noted that the shelters can make money go further since they can purchase clothing below retail price.

Staffing, resources stretched thin

The early winter weather means the shelters will have to stretch their budgets further this year. And they're also affected by the tight labour market, making it harder to find enough qualified staff.

"Any extra cost is a challenge for us," said Pearce. "We live on a tight budget, but we'll do what we have to do."

When the winter protocol, which usually begins Dec. 1, is activated, clients are able to keep warm overnight in the Old Brewery Mission cafeteria, though they cannot sleep there.

Twenty beds are also added at the mission during that time.

"We're having to scramble to get all that in place right away," Pearce said, adding that, like most Montrealers, the cold snap has caught them a little unprepared.

The mission's shuttle service is also starting early, which patrols downtown and helps move people between the city's shelters.

Winter has come early to Montreal. (Charles Contant/CBC Montreal)

"We're also looking in the neighbourhood to make sure that there's nobody sleeping under overpasses or sleeping underneath construction zones," said Watts. Such work requires additional staffing.

He said the Welcome Hall Mission's emergency shelter on St-Antoine Street near the Bell Centre currently has about 240 people sleeping there every night.

As the city enters its deep freeze in the coming months, the shelter's staff encourages clients to spend more time at the shelter as they work to find them permanent housing.

Some of those on the street have mental health problems that affect their decision-making abilities, so they do not think to go to the shelter on their own.

"There are some who stubbornly choose a life on the street," said Watts. 

"Many of them have had a bad experience with landlords."

With files from Jay Turnbull and CBC Montreal's Daybreak


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