News Local

Cold weather shelters open

MATT KIELTYKA, QMI AGENCY
The Union Gospel Mission was busy Sunday arranging beds during a cold snap that has hit Vancouver in recent days. (CARMINE MARINELLI, QMI AGENCY)

The Union Gospel Mission was busy Sunday arranging beds during a cold snap that has hit Vancouver in recent days. (CARMINE MARINELLI, QMI AGENCY)

The opening of emergency cold weather shelters seems to have taken the heat off those that are busy year-round.

Both the Union Gospel Mission and the Salvation Army say they have the ability to accommodate many more people seeking refuge from the frigid elements after surprisingly low turnouts at their shelters over the weekend.

The UGM has the ability to take in up to 60 people, but only 33 people showed up Saturday night.

The Salvation Army's two emergency shelters also had plenty of room available, with 28 people spending the night at the 35-bed Crosswalk shelter and 12 people at the 35-bed Anchor Saturday night.

"It was a bit surprising," admitted UGM spokesperson Derek Weiss.

Weiss said some homeless have gone to the city's HEAT shelters instead, while others may be bunking with friends and family.

Either way, it's a sign providers were ready for this winter, according to Weiss.

"As long as these people are finding someplace warm, it's good for us," he said. "The meteorologists gave us an early warning that it would be a cold winter and we've done a lot of early planning."

Weiss said the UGM's mobile team is scouring the city - at parks, under bridges and in industrial areas - looking for people who may be choosing the stay outdoors and they have extra staff on call if an influx of people shows up at their doorstep.

The situation was mostly the same at the Salvation Army over the weekend.

"All of the emergency shelters in the city are open," said Kecia Fossen. "No one is getting turned away."

Vancouver police spokesperson Const. Lindsey Houghton said no serious cold-related incidents were reported as of Sunday morning.

Officers, especially in the Downtown Eastside, have been given thousands of blankets to hand out through the Salvation Army.

Seeing every community organization at the ready and having room to spare is great news for those who remember how scattered the response was a few years ago.

Shelters were overflowing and some municipalities, like Burnaby, didn't even have a cold weather shelter plan in place in 2006 when a severe cold snap hit the region in late November.

Stories were circulating about homeless people banding together and squatting in undisclosed locations to fend for themselves.

Questions about prolonged government funding of extreme cold weather beds further complicated matters that winter.

Since then, community plans have been improved, the provincial government committed to funding beds for as long as they're necessary and the City of Vancouver launched its HEAT shelter program.

"I think we learned a lot. We got slammed a few years ago and it taught us a big lesson," Weiss said. "Everyone was ready for this."

And with the weather expected to get even colder this week, both Weiss and Fossen said they're ready to shelter more people.