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Daniel Gagné arrives to sleep at the Britannia overnight warming centre in Vancouver on Monday.

Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak

Daniel Gagné waits patiently by the door of a rundown building near Vancouver's Commercial Drive that normally serves as extra gym space for the Britannia community centre.

Mr. Gagné, lean and with a trim grey beard, arrived from Asia a couple of days ago with nothing but his used plane ticket and his bags. He has spent the last two nights trying to find a place to stay, but the regular shelters are full and so are the city's temporary winter ones.

So he has walked over to this new site – one of several overnight warming centres that have opened around Vancouver to add to its existing network of shelters during this bitterly cold winter.

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"It's fantastic this is here," says Mr. Gagné, who spent the day in the central branch of the Vancouver public library.

He's one of a mixed bag of people who have filtered into this room tonight.

As the doors open, Jan, a young Quebec man with a studded leather jacket and pink hair, rushes in, whooping and dancing, his dog leaping beside him, and pushing a cart heaped with his belongings.

Paul, a former oil and gas worker who walks with a cane after a load of steel crushed a foot, limps in quietly.

The group is benefiting from an unusual decision this year: Vancouver politicians and staffers decided in mid-December that, with a winter marked by more ice and snow than the city has seen in almost a decade, the existing system of shelters wasn't enough.

A well-known man who lived outdoors near Commercial Drive, Mike Illing, had died while sleeping outside one recent night.

To prevent anything else like that happening, the city decided it would open up community centres as drop-in warming centres: places where people could come to get a hot drink, sit inside and, if they had brought something to sleep on, stretch out and nap a little. There are currently three open.

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The move has produced noticeable results. More than 2,000 visits have been recorded at the various community centres since they were opened Dec. 17. Only a few, between 15 and 25 people, stay the whole night.

Many more just come in for a while to stay warm.

The high overall numbers have been proof to housing advocates and city staff that something more than the current number and style of shelters is needed.

But creating instant shelter-like spaces in what are meant to be activity centres for the general public has also taken a toll.

Monday, the city's park-board general manager Malcolm Bromley said he decided to close the Creekside community centre, in the heart of the Olympic village, because staff were burned out trying to run both the community-centre programs and the night-time warming centre.

As well, he said the staff are still investigating an incident where a child had some kind of contact with a needle left behind by a centre user.

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"We will also be improving our transition procedures at community centres acting as warming centres to ensure occupants depart early to give staff time to prepare the centres for public programming," he said in a statement Tuesday.

The week before, the city had put out a call asking for more volunteers to help out with the program because it had gone on so long that it was starting to weigh on the small roster of emergency social-services volunteers the city can call on during disasters.

"We're trying to avoid volunteer burnout too," said Abigail Bond, Vancouver's director of housing policy. "We're trying to anticipate what to do because this is going to go on longer than we thought."

The word went out to the city's large list of volunteers who worked on its homeless count last March. As a result, at the Britannia hall, two new volunteers have shown up for their first shifts. One is Kat Gallant, a 21-year-old University of British Columbia economics student who hopes to work on affordable-housing issues when she graduates.

"It's really important to do this. And we definitely need more supplies, like breakfast stuff," says Ms. Gallant, as she sits behind a table with drinks, cups and free food that the other volunteer has brought in from the restaurant where she works.

For now, the Britannia centre is staying open as the temperatures continue to drop below freezing at night. The West End community centre's warming program is also continuing, and a new one at the Carnegie community centre, in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, is opening to replace Creekside.

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