'Only a matter of time' before another freezing death in Saskatoon, says homeless advocate

When Saskatoon weather hit lows of -34 degrees last week, Prairie Harm Reduction executive director Jason Mercredi says people were begging staff to let them in to warm up.

Jason Mercredi says warm-up spaces quickly fill up due to COVID-19 measures

Jason Mercredi poses in the Prairie Harm Reduction safe consumption area, which opened last fall. Due to COVID restrictions, the organization can only allow nine people inside at a time, despite the recent cold. (Chelsea Laskowski/CBC)

When Saskatoon weather hit lows of –34 C last week, Jason Mercredi says, people were begging staff at Prairie Harm Reduction to let them in to warm up.

"They've been negotiating with other participants saying, hey, can you come outside for five minutes and let me warm up?" said Mercredi, executive director of the organization.

"We've definitely had people crying, begging, yelling. You know, it's not right that we can't let them in at that point, but we also don't want to break COVID protocols."

Prairie Harm Reduction offers services for vulnerable people and runs the supervised injection site. It's one of the 12 designated warm-up spaces in Saskatoon. 

But the organization is currently allowed to have only five people in the drop-in centre and four people in the consumption space. Previously, they could have about 20 people altogether.

Mercredi said Prairie Harm Reduction's staff have good relationships with their clients, but there's a lot of frustration.

"When your feet are freezing, you know, it doesn't matter who's telling you no, it's still a no. So it's quite upsetting," he told CBC's Saskatoon Morning. "I think staff are kind of hitting their wits' end here."

Reduced capacity at all warm-up shelters

There have been two freezing deaths in Saskatoon so far this year:

  • Police confirmed that a woman who was found Jan. 23 at Avenue Q South and 18th Street West was frozen and that the cause of death is not considered suspicious. 
  • The coroner's office confirmed the sudden death of a man found on the 2800 block of Lorne Avenue on Jan 3 was caused by hypothermia. 

"I think it's only a matter of time before somebody else dies at this point, to be honest," Mercredi said. "It's the sad truth, but it's the truth."

Mercredi said it's not just Prairie Harm Reduction that's struggling — it's every community-based organization. All of the warm-up shelters have seen their capacity reduced due to COVID-19 protocols.

Through grants, Mercredi said Prairie Harm Reduction has hired people to go out into the community to hand out winter clothing. But he said it's not enough.

'Missing the mark as a city'

Other cities, including Regina, have opened additional shelters for vulnerable people.

Awasiw: A Place of Hope opened in Regina on Dec. 26 and is run by the All Nations Hope Network in partnership with YWCA Regina in Regina's North Central neighbourhood. 

The station was able to quickly open because of financial contributions from the City of Regina and the Regina Reaching Homes Community Advisory Board. 

Edmonton opened up a rec centre as an overnight warm-up shelter, and Mercredi has heard of similar efforts in Toronto and Montreal.

"We're not really seeing the province interested in funding anything like this here," he said.

Mercredi said when the pandemic first started, advocates were asking for the government to make empty government housing available for people who are homeless or hard to house, but he said they haven't received an "adequate" response from the government.

At a minimum, he'd like to see a 24-hour warm-up location for people.

"If we were not housing these folks, we have to give them an option for where they can go at night to stay warm.… Clearly we're missing the mark as a city."


Ashleigh Mattern is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon and CBC Saskatchewan.

With files from Saskatoon Morning