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Manager of H.E.L.P. Team Boyle Street Community Services Doug Cooke checks on homeless people and hands out supplies in Edmonton on Dec. 9, 2021.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Toronto is opening three emergency warming centres earlier than planned to help homeless people survive an arctic cold snap that has already caused havoc in Western Canada, pushing shelter systems past their limit and endangering the lives of hundreds sleeping outside in Vancouver and Edmonton.

Mayor John Tory met with city staff Thursday, and the decision was made to open the three facilities a day early, which happened without the typical trigger of Toronto’s medical officer issuing an extreme cold weather alert because temperatures are forecast to become colder than -14 C.

A major winter storm is expected to bring blizzard-like conditions and possible flash freezing to much of Ontario on Friday, with school boards in Toronto and many cities cancelling classes for that day. Heavy snow, ice pellets and freezing rain were expected to pummel the Vancouver area, the Fraser Valley and the Lower Mainland throughout Friday and into Christmas Eve. And in Alberta, extreme cold with temperatures expected below -40 C is forecast to continue. The scramble to keep people safe has highlighted the shortage of even emergency resources in all three provinces.

Housing activists and a doctor who treats people experiencing homelessness in Toronto argue that the 112 extra spaces in the three facilities announced Thursday are not enough.

How to prepare when a winter storm is coming

On Wednesday night, official data showed nearly every shelter program operating at or near capacity to house 8,666 people, but there are close to 10,000 people experiencing homelessness right now, according to Andrew Boozary, a doctor who works in downtown Toronto at the Sound Times mental-health and addiction clinic.

“There is no give in the system, that’s why, on average, about 180 to 200 calls are not being able to be placed in a shelter each night over the last month,” said Dr. Boozary, who also leads the Gattuso Centre for Social Medicine Innovation at the University Health Network. “The desperation has never been this bad, it has never been this dire.”

He added that the warming centres are a welcome replacement for a subway station, bank machine alcove or a hospital emergency room, but the only way to break this cycle of life-threatening poverty is to build more social housing. Dr. Boozary said it costs $6,600 a month to house someone in a typical city shelter compared to up to $2,800 for a typical social-housing unit.

“It is very expensive and continues to be incredibly cruel to the people who are surviving homelessness,” he said.

Taylor Deasley, spokesperson for Mr. Tory, said the city is focused on building affordable social housing to provide more permanent housing to those on the streets, noting last year 3,409 people were moved into homes from Toronto’s shelters.

Jesse Allan, a housing activist known as Gru who recently received such housing after nearly a decade sleeping on the streets and in shelters, said the city’s measures so far are a “Band-Aid solution on a gunshot wound.” He said those shut out of housing could die as they try to warm themselves up with camping stoves or other means.

In Hamilton, social agencies say a shelter system already under intense strain will be pushed to its limits should the storm touch down as expected.

Katherine Kalinowski, chief operating officer of Good Shepherd Centres, said emergency shelters have already been operating at full capacity, and in some cases overcapacity, in the Southwestern Ontario city. The non-profit operates more than 400 beds in the region. She said the agency has previously accommodated extra people by repurposing common spaces, armchairs and offices for sleeping spaces, but she is concerned it won’t be enough.

“My worry is that people will die. My worry is that people will seek shelter in places that aren’t safe. And my worry is that stigma attached to homelessness in this community – all communities – will lead people to feel like they can’t reach out and ask for help,” Ms. Kalinowski said. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I have not seen this kind of pressure and demand for emergency shelter.”

The Hub Hamilton, which runs a drop-in day program for the homeless community, is also preparing to shelter locals. When the temperature dips, or is expected to drop, to -15 C or colder, the space transforms into an emergency warming centre for 25 people.

Executive director Jennifer Bonner said when there are lineups that exceed capacity, they often cycle people in and out on an hourly basis, ensuring as many people as possible can warm up. She said there were four warming shelters last year, but there’s now only one because of limited city funding. “We’re as prepared as we can be, but I don’t know what it will look like. Am I going to have 70 people line up outside to try and get inside? There’s a very strong possibility,” she said.

Across the Rockies, provincial ministers and officials called a press conference to warn the public not to drive far this weekend with freezing rain and then a deluge of melting snow in the forecast. They also said 21 communities in British Columbia have requested provincial funding to open emergency warming centres.

Even with 10 of these centres opening this week in Vancouver, some of the estimated 3,600 homeless people in the region are still being turned away from shelters that are full, said Rachael Allen, a spokesperson with the Union Gospel Mission, which runs outreach services in the Downtown Eastside as well as a 92-bed shelter.

Meanwhile, Vancouver Fire Rescue Services spokesperson Captain Matthew Trudeau said his department has fielded numerous complaints of open flames, with some people so desperate to fight the freezing temperatures they are dumping hand sanitizer onto the sidewalk and setting it alight.

Further east, Alberta continues to be under an extreme cold warning issued by Environment Canada, which says temperatures between -40 C and -55 C with wind chill will continue. For days now, homeless shelters and outreach groups have been working around the clock to prevent the vulnerable population from falling prey to the elements.

In Edmonton, agencies have been filling shelter beds across the city, including the 622 permanently funded beds and more than 500 temporary spaces. Christel Kjenner, director of affordable housing and homelessness for the City of Edmonton, said the city is also running night buses to transport people to shelter.

But a continuing concern of hers is how many dozens, if not hundreds, of people continue to live in encampments, which carry the risk of fires. So far this year, encampment fires have left five dead.

Shelters in Calgary have also had an increase in the number of clients but have yet to reach capacity. Part of the city’s extreme-weather response has included the funding of five daytime warming services located at existing social agencies and a mobile warming centre in a retrofitted Salvation Army emergency disaster vehicle.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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