Vancouver shelters forced to turn people away amid cold weather

Officials are urging people to stay warm and dry amid the cold spell taking over B.C., but for the unhoused, that can be nearly impossible.

Some shelters are reporting that they reluctantly had to turn people away Thursday night, despite temperatures dropping to the negative teens in Metro Vancouver.

“We don’t have statistics specifically from last night … What we do know is that the night before … we had to turn away 10 people, and that’s a lot. We were only able to refer five, so what that means is five people of those 10 were able to find other shelter. The other five, we don’t know exactly where they ended up staying that night,” said Sarah Chew with the Union Gospel Mission (UGM).

“It’s bitter and freezing cold right now, so our biggest concern is that people are able to find somewhere indoors to stay warm and out of this cold.”

Chew says in January 2022, the UGM had to turn away 237 people. In the first 11 days of that month last year, the total turnaways was 37.

So far this month, the count is higher, she adds.

“All year long, we do anticipate that our community is facing the elements — heat and cold — and we are so concerned for this weekend because temperatures are dropping so low and our community who faces homelessness, they are most prone to frostbite, hypothermia, pneumonia, when it gets this cold. People can even freeze to death,” Chew said, noting the UGM’s 92 beds are typically always full.

The UGM also provides hot meals to those in need, and have a drop-in centre with extended hours during extreme situations like these.

But the UGM wasn’t the only shelter to have to turn people away Thursday night.

Duncan Higgon, interim director of housing at the Portland Hotel Society, says the organization operates three shelters in Vancouver. He says each of them has “operated at full capacity every single day through summers and winters.”

“On a nightly basis, we’re navigating and supporting many, many individuals who are unable to access shelter just based on the reality that our shelters are full,” he told CityNews.

Higgon says the PHS does everything it can to meet the demand and those seeking support, and will take in as many people as they can. However, turnaways are inevitable, with limited shelter spaces available.

“There are individuals who we are redirecting to other services on a nightly basis,” he added.

Higgon is commending groups and people who are “working diligently to get as many spaces open as possible,” calling the work being done a “Herculean effort.”

He echoes calls to support the opening of more accessible spaces for our most vulnerable communities. But beyond that, he says it’s critical spaces cater to the needs of individuals.

“In that space, that means an even bigger push and an even more focused lens that, right, of course, not everyone in the homeless are a homogenous group. They, too, are individuals like anyone else in our community,” Higgon said.

In the absence of enough shelter spaces, the UGM also has its Mobile Mission vehicle out, with volunteers hard at work supporting those who are on the streets.

Chew says the van meets and supports people where they are, including at encampments, forested areas, and beyond, passing around blankets, hot chocolate, clothing, and other critical items.

“It’s really important in this cold weather to make sure people know that they are loved and seen, even if they are not so close to us … We know that they’re out there. We want to make sure they know we see them, we have provisions for them to stay warm, we care about them, and, honestly, people need a listening ear, more often than not, to share what they’re going through,” she said.

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