With the start of winter officially just days away sub zero temperatures have already kept homeless people seeking warm beds at Nanaimo’s emergency shelters for several weeks.
Kevan Griffith, coordinator for the First Unitarian Fellowship of Nanaimo’s Extreme Weather Shelter, said an average of 17 people per night have been staying at the facility for the past month.
“It’s been busy, but it’s OK,” Griffiths said. “I’m glad we’re using our beds.”
The shelter can sleep up to 24 people, but the province actually covers the costs for up to 18 beds, which was suggested by the shelter. Funding is based on the average number of beds used per night.
“The reason we lowered it with B.C. Housing was because last year our average was 10.5 [guests per night],” Griffith said. “I’m letting them know how many times we’re over. If our average ends up being 18 for the year I’m sure they’ll give us back six beds.”
The city also contributes funding and Griffith said Gorosh Cranes donates a lockable bin for clients to secure their shopping carts and bikes overnight.
The shelter was at capacity on only about two of the coldest nights in recent weeks.
Griffith and Rob Anderson, director for the Salvation Army in Nanaimo, have noticed a number of new faces they haven’t seen in previous years.
Griffith said there have been rumours people from Ladysmith, which does not have an emergency shelter, have migrated to Nanaimo to get out of the cold, but his queries as to whether they came from Ladysmith haven’t generated conclusive answers.
“We had a couple that were identified as being from Ladysmith, but when I spoke to them they told me they used to live in Ladysmith,” Griffith said. “When you’re homeless, really, what’s your address?”
Griffith and Anderson said they haven’t heard of anyone succumbing to the cold, but one man was sent to the Extreme Weather Shelter after being treated for exposure at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital.
Samaritan House, an emergency women’s shelter on Nicol Street, has 10 beds has been running a nearly maximum occupancy throughout the fall too, said Ronnel Bosman, Samaritan House director.
When women have to be turned away Samaritan House staff do what has become standard practice for all shelters, phone around to other shelters until a beds are found.
“We won’t let people stay outside if the Extreme Weather Shelter is full,” Bosman said. “We have overflow mattresses, so we will use that if we need to or will phone around or phone the RCMP to put them in the cells or something, but we try to accommodate them somewhere.”
Anderson said the occupancy rate at the Salvation Army’s New Hope Centre on Nicol Street was about 87 per cent for October and 94 per cent for November this year compared to the same period for 2012 when occupancy averaged about 57 per cent.
“We are seeing a lot of new faces,” Anderson said.
But some of those are people who will only seek shelter under the most extreme conditions.
“We had a couple people that we know live in tents and they came in,” Anderson said. “Normally they have a tent somewhere, I think set up somewhere on Mount Benson.”
When cold weather hits, shelters look for donations of coats and warm clothing, personal hygiene products and fresh fruit, something often overlooked among donations of non-perishables, bread and donuts, but is an important dietary supplement throughout the winter months.
“We’re always looking for socks and men’s underwear,” Griffith said.