Emergency shelters operating over capacity, as wicked winter pushes many indoors

Advocates 'fatigued' from long months of cold weather

Jesse Wegenast

Jesse Wegenast

The most wicked winter in recent memory has taken its toll on those who work to shelter Abbotsford’s homeless population during the most bitterly cold and wet nights.

Since the first week of December, extreme weather protocols expanding the number of beds available in town have come into effect all but eight or nine nights, according to Jesse Wegenast.

“It’s never ending,” the 5 and 2 ministries pastor and homelessness advocate said. “There’s definitely fatigue starting to set in but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still work to be done and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t still people that need to come in from the cold.”

Wegenast has helped run an emergency shelter on those nights first in the warehouse of the MCC Thrift Shop and more recently in the gymnasium at Gateway Community Church on the Abbotsford-Mission Highway.

On extreme weather nights, the Cyrus Centre adds additional beds for youth and families and the Salvation Army’s Centre of Hope on Gladys Avenue adds 20 beds to its usual 26, while 5 and 2 Ministries runs a 20-bed emergency shelter at Gateway.

But on most extreme weather nights this winter, the number of homeless people coming in from the cold in search of a warm bed has exceeded the planned bed-count, Wegenast said.

The number of people sleeping in the extreme weather beds has been at 150 per cent of capacity about half the nights and, on a few occasions, capacity has been exceeded by double, he said.

On Wednesday night, as the city was pelted with freezing rain, the Salvation Army sheltered 60 people – 14 more than its 46-bed capacity – while 30 slept at Gateway – 150 per cent of its capacity.

No one is ever turned away and more fitness mats are pulled out to accommodate them, Wegenast said.

The Lookout Shelter on Riverside Road does not add to its 40-bed capacity on extreme weather nights.

The Cyrus Centre runs a patrol van on extreme weather nights between 8 p.m. and midnight.

Volunteers drive around the city picking people up and bringing them to the various shelters.

They search known homeless camping spots and respond to tips from the public and police, executive director Les Talvio said.

While the coldest nights bring many homeless individuals who usually decline shelter services indoors, some continue to remain outdoors.

Talvio said those individuals have given a variety of reasons for refusing to stay in shelters but it often comes down to a sense of mistrust.

“Some of them, they don’t want a shelter they want a home and they’ll consider where they’re at as more home to them then going into a shelter,” he said.

These makeshift homes are often quite intricate and involve tarps, scrap wood and other materials, he said.

Wegenast said there are a variety of ways the average citizen can support efforts to take care of Abbotsford’s homeless population.

“All the agencies could use some support and encouragement,” he said. “If you run into someone you know who works at the Salvation Army, I can guarantee that they’re pulling extra shifts and that they’re working extra hard. Give them an ‘attaboy.'”

He also said local organizations – the Salvation Army, Cyrus and 5 and 2 – are always looking for donated goods, chief among them: instant soup soups, socks, sleeping bags and blankets.