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Space needed for extreme weather beds for homeless in Abbotsford

Many residents in the homeless protest camp in Jubilee Park are planning to stay despite freezing weather.  - Alex Butler
Many residents in the homeless protest camp in Jubilee Park are planning to stay despite freezing weather.
— image credit: Alex Butler

With bitterly cold temperatures expected for the weekend, extreme weather shelter co-ordinator Dave Murray is looking for ways to find shelter for those with no place to go.

Extreme weather beds are available from November to March whenever the community issues an extreme weather alert, often when temperatures drop below zero. The beds are funded by the provincial government through BC Housing and seek to help homeless individuals through the season's coldest nights.

Abbotsford has about 40 beds for adults at the Salvation Army with more beds for youth provided at Cyrus Centre. Most years, there are also churches that provide additional spaces.

But Murray said that this December, there is no church available for the extreme weather program, though there are arrangements in place for January, February and March. He added that normally in December, temperatures do not drop this low, but with a weather warning in effect – predicting wind chill of minus 20 – Murray is trying to find an additional facility and a way to staff it.

Murray has spend much of today (Friday) looking for a place to set up, but has not yet had success. He is hoping someone will come forward with an option to house extreme weather beds through the cold snap.

"If it doesn't work today, I'll try again tomorrow."

In addition to a facility that will get people through the current cold weather, Murray said he wants to rent space in January, February and March in order to house an additional temporary shelter – adding that any plan would require due diligence, consulting with neighbours and going through the necessary process.

"We need somebody to step up. We need a space near the downtown core, or a space we can rent somewhere on South Fraser Way. Something that the homeless people can get to."

Murray added that BC Housing has been accommodating the need to find solutions to the problem of shelter space, and quickly.

The need for a variety of shelters stems from the different needs of the homeless people in Abbotsford. Some are hesitant to enter the Salvation Army or churches. Providing a "neutral" space would help encourage some to come indoors.

"Whoever provides an extreme weather shelter, we all have a niche to fill. So, we just need to have more niches out there that people can access."

Ward Draper, of the 5 and 2 Ministries, is working with Murray to help find a solution. He said the rules at some shelters inhibit some homeless people from staying the night.

"The concern is that we don't have enough options to address the variety of needs for our friends living on the streets."

Draper said it is time to start considering creative options when it comes to providing shelters, and his organization and others are currently looking for a solution.

Deb Lowell, public relations director at the Salvation Army, said although there has been an extreme weather alert issued for several days, their shelter has not been full.

"We have capacity for between 40 and 44 beds. Last night we were at 35, the night before we were at 33. So, we're just really wanting people to know that there was space available last night."

Lowell said they have outreach workers trying to connect with those living outdoors, letting them know that there are spots available, as well as providing warm clothes to those who don't want to come in. Lowell said that mental health or substance abuse issues can keep some people accessing shelter, as well as a variety of other reasons.

Les Talvio, executive director of the Cyrus Centre for at-risk youth, also has extreme weather beds open for youth. While they usually have 10, Murray said Cyrus Centre will accommodate more through the cold snap.

Talvio stressed that the centre will welcome any youth who need shelter.

"We won't turn anyone away in extreme weather – because the only other option is the outdoors… They can come in, they can stay warm. We'll give them a hot chocolate… gloves, tuques, whatever we can do."

Murray said the organizations involved are all doing what they can to help, and they along with BC Housing and local churches, all deserve praise for their efforts to help the homeless during the colder weather.

Murray said the community can assist through helping to find new space for extreme weather beds during the cold snap, as well as donating to the Abbotsford Food Bank.

Abbotsford's last homeless count, conducted in 2011, found 117 homeless people in Abbotsford. But the count acknowledges that as the count is conducted as a snapshot of a 24-hour period, it is at best, only an estimate of the number of homeless.

Above photos: left, Dave Murray, right, Les Talvio

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