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Volunteer Stephen Wilsack spent Sunday covering tents with tarps for unhoused people at an encampment in Grand Parade square downtown Halifax in preparation for the city's first big winter storm.Lindsay Jones/The Globe and Mail

As the first winter wallop of the season blew up the coast of Nova Scotia Sunday, volunteers and non-profit groups scrambled to provide more emergency shelter beds and safety measures for the growing number of people living rough in the city of Halifax.

In a public square in downtown Halifax, volunteer Stephen Wilsack spent the day securing additional tarps overtop more than two dozen red ice-fishing tents and handing out winter sleeping bags and other supplies to help make the encampment “as humane as possible.”

“This by no means is the answer,” he said, adding that he’s awaiting an imminent decision from the city and the province to allow tent encampments to move into the Halifax Forum, a multipurpose facility, for the winter.

“If you’re not readily prepared, this is a life-or-death situation for a lot of people.”

Two months ago, Mr. Wilsack and his friend Matthew Grant arrived at the urban encampment to hand out mattresses and set up a warming centre, but after seeing the dire need to provide better protection from the elements, they left the comfort of their homes, pitched their own tent, and have stayed to help ever since. He said they work 18 to 20 hours a day on site and are now trying to support other encampments.

Over the last week and a half, the pair worked with the city to provide electricity to the encampment in Grand Parade, the downtown square, with help from the local portable generator company Star Power Atlantic and the production company William F. White International Inc. – something Mr. Wilsack was familiar with as a locations scout and public health and safety officer in the film industry.

Now, residents can use heating blankets, charge their devices, turn a light on in the dark – necessities that he believes should be the standard minimum at every encampment in Canada.

At the square on Sunday, residents warmed their hands over a fire, pondering whether to stay and try to get through the storm or find somewhere else to sleep for the night.

Environment Canada issued a Special Weather Statement for Halifax calling for up to 10 centimetres of snow and a wind chill of minus 10. In other parts of the province there was a Winter Storm Warning for Digby, Yarmouth, Shelburne, Queens and Lunenburg counties. Hazardous winter conditions are expected with up to 20 centimetres of snow overnight and winds gusting up to 80 kilometres an hour.

At the Halifax encampment, Elmer Paris said he had been sleeping there but it’s become too cold. During the storm he planned to find a “cubby hole” nearby a downtown mall, close to where he can access hot meals the next day and push his shopping cart around to collect recyclables in exchange for money.

The 71-year-old has been unhoused since the home where he rented an apartment for 16 years sold in November.

“I don’t really feel I put myself in this situation but I really feel like I’m the one responsible,” he said, sitting in front of a fire in a plastic lawn chair as the bell chimed from City Hall on Sunday afternoon.

In preparation for the winter storm warning, the city and province opened a temporary shelter with 50 beds at the Halifax Forum until noon Monday.

Marcus James, executive director of the grassroots non-profit 902 Man Up, said three people had showed up to use it prior to the storm and he expected more to arrive after the snow starts. Staff were on standby to support clients and offer them a cot, a meal and hot drinks, he added.

“This is not a solution but it does provide some comfort,” he said. “It does allow people to get into the space and get back a bit of normalcy into their lives and hopefully we get to build on that from there.”

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