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The Globe and Mail

Lower Mainland shelters crowded in 'extreme' weather

A man is blanketed with snow in downtown Victoria, B.C., on Jan. 18, 2012.

chad hipolito The Globe and Mail

Not a single homeless person looking for shelter from record-low temperatures on the streets of Lower Mainland has been turned away the past few days, according to the Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy.

Treacherous conditions on the streets have forced more people into shelters, and in Vancouver, the 1,150 shelter spaces available on a year-round basis have been filling up quickly every night. But temporary shelter spaces have opened up to absorb the overflow.

The First United Church, which operates one of the city's largest shelters with approximately 200 beds, has diverted more than 20 people between Monday and Wednesday to emergency shelters.

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"We have been having to turn some people away," said Stephen Gray, the church's acting co-executive director. "But fortunately, because of the emergency shelter response being open during this cold spell, we've been able to find other shelters that can accommodate them if they've come to our doors."

Mr. Gray said that the overnight manager at the shelter has found over the past few nights that "the streets are quiet and people are finding their way out of the cold."

Environment Canada issued a winter storm warning for B.C.'s south coast Wednesday that covered areas including Vancouver Island, Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. Overnight, a storm moved into the southern part of the province. The storm is estimated to generate between 2 to 15 centimetres along the coast, and up to 10 millimetres of freezing rain throughout Friday.

The emergency shelter response is run by the Greater Vancouver Shelter Strategy under the extreme weather response program. The program funds temporary extra shelter spaces where people can use a mat and stay warm for the night in church basements and community centres. There are 240 of these temporary shelter spaces in Vancouver available.

Irene Jaakson, co-ordinator for Vancouver's extreme weather response program, said the past few days have more than surpassed the criteria for extreme weather.

So far, the program has not had to turn anyone away. "I'm fairly optimistic that we won't have to turn anyone away moving forward," Ms. Jaakson said.

Since the temporary shelters opened in November last year, they've served more than 500 shelter-seekers in Vancouver.

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"I think any number of people who has to sleep outside under these conditions is too many," she said. "Truly, this is just an emergency measure, the only way to deal with this issue of homeless is to expand the range of housing options that people have access to."

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