Winter weather sends homeless who’d rather sleep outside to Abbotsford shelters

Around 140 people have been sleeping in Abbotsford's emergency and established shelters during a full month of cold weather.

Jeremy and Jody sit on the steps outside the Salvation Army. The pair are among around 140 homeless men and women who have been sleeping in shelter during the last month.

Jeremy and Jody sit on the steps outside the Salvation Army. The pair are among around 140 homeless men and women who have been sleeping in shelter during the last month.

On the stairs outside of the Salvation Army, Jody, Jeremy and Trish sat on the cold concrete, the sharp rays of the sun providing a tiny amount of warmth in one of the coldest Fraser Valley winters in recent memory.

Until December, all three had avoided the city’s homeless facilities. But on Tuesday, the trio were among 140 men and women who slept in shelters – including several emergency weather facilities, the Salvation Army and the Riverside Road winter shelter.

Cyrus Centre executive director Les Talvio, who co-ordinates the emergency weather shelters, says many of those people have previously avoided indoor sleeping arrangements. But no longer.

“They’ve said, ‘If we don’t come in, we’ll die,’ ” he told The News.

On the steps, Jody, Jeremy and Trish echo that sentiment, although their words – at least to a reporter – aren’t so blunt.

Previously, Jody had preferred to move around Abbotsford and stay awake for days on end until, inevitably, “crashing”; Jeremy travelled the province, moving from city to city; and Trish slept rough in a tent with her boyfriend and her small black dog. The three prized their freedom, and – to one degree or another – preferred to avoid shelters and the tight spaces and interpersonal politics.

But the cold has made spending the night outside no longer feasible.

“This is the coldest winter I’ve seen in 12 years,” said Trish, who held out the longest, only heading to a shelter this week.

She says there were ways to warm up while sleeping outside. Mainly, that involved bundling up in a tent and cooking hand sanitizer in a frying pan for heat.

Nevertheless, “it’s frickin’ cold,” she said.

During the day, finding places to keep warm is tricky, the trio say, with businesses and institutions asking them to move along.

“There’s nowhere to go and sit and really hang out,” Jody said, adding that the city needs a drop-in spot for homeless people during the day – a facility that is being considered by the city committee that deals with homelessness. Trish said the city also needs pet-friendly shelters.

While there have been hiccups, Jody said service organizations have been helpful and the community has come through with donations of blankets and other essentials – although she and the others said they still feel judged and looked down upon by many in the city.

The emergency weather shelters have been open each night since Dec. 4, the longest such stretch ever in Abbotsford. That’s a result of constantly cold temperatures and the fact that when the mercury has briefly poked above the freezing mark, there has been rain and snow on the ground.

The result has been an unprecedented demand – and supply – of shelter spaces. While shelters are “all running at capacity or above,” no one has been turned away, and the city has pledged more spaces if needed, Talvio said.

Since Dec. 15, an outreach van has been making the rounds and has given around 250 rides – mostly to shelters – and workers have found homeless men and women in places they hadn’t been aware of people camping.

“It’s been quite an eye-opener,” he said.

Talvio said he has been proud of his colleagues at the Cyrus Centre and compatriots at other local service providers. He also hailed Good Samaritans who have made donations, provided assistance to homeless men and women, and called outreach workers after seeing people who may need help.

“It’s been great to see the good side, the kind side of humanity helping make a difference.”

There is still a need for gloves, toques, underwear and socks. They can be dropped off at Cyrus Centre, which Talvio said also could use gas cards to help put fuel in its outreach van.