As snow flurries fell and temperatures dipped well below freezing over the past week, up to 15 people have been bunking down on mats at the North Shore emergency shelter each night.
The shelter hasn’t reached capacity with all 20 of the extreme weather beds filling up yet, but shelter manager Bailey Mumford said that’s probably only a matter of time. With frigid air and snow gripping the coast recently and generally colder temperatures predicted for this winter, “It’s going to be a bit of a long haul, I think,” said Mumford.
If all 20 temporary spaces in the shelter on 2nd Street fill up, a secondary shelter with 25 mats can be opened at North Shore Neighbourhood house, although that hasn’t happened yet.
The province funds emergency beds at the North Shore Shelter and Housing Centre. This year, the rules setting out when the shelter can open cold weather emergency beds were eased making it possible to open those spots for more days. The North Vancouver shelter, run by the Lookout Emergency Aid Society, opened its emergency beds last month.
As a low-barrier facility, the North Vancouver shelter doesn’t turn away people because they are using drugs or alcohol. The shelter doesn’t allow storage of possessions, however, because there isn’t enough storage space, said Mumford.
That can be an issue for some people, who prefer to continue camping outside, even in freezing temperatures.
Sometimes those who choose to “sleep rough” have mental health problems or don’t do well in group environments, said Mumford.
During the current cold snap, outreach workers have been going out daily to spots they know are frequented by homeless people, trying to get them into the shelter and check on the wellbeing of those on the street or in the bush. “Some of it’s just checking to make sure they’re alive and not getting too sick,” said Mumford.
People who have been outside long term can develop a range of medical problems, from deteriorating joints to freezing fingers.
Outreach workers often accompany bylaw officers if people who are camping outside are being asked to leave municipal parks or trails.
Mumford said workers have managed to get four or five people who had been moving from camp to camp inside the shelter recently, but acknowledged the issue is complicated.
Lately, the shelter is seeing an increase in both the number of women and number of seniors, he said, including one 88-year-old man who had been sleeping outside. Some people even come to the shelter straight from the hospital if they are discharged with no place to go.
North Vancouver RCMP officers have also been doing their part to help the homeless, handing out special care kits with items like toques, gloves, socks, rain ponchos, toiletries, energy bars and teas to those they encounter on the street.
Cpl. Richard De Jong, spokesperson for the North Vancouver RCMP, said Cpl. Randy Wong of the North Vancouver detachment came up with the idea for the kits, which have been paid for by money donated by RCMP officers and staff at the detachment and handed out by patrol officers for the past month.
Officers also offer the homeless they encounter a ride to the homeless shelter on 2nd Street if they want it, said De Jong. “Sometimes they take us up on the offer and sometimes they don’t.”