With temperatures in the Cowichan Valley dipping below freezing at night recently, local emergency shelters are reporting a big demand for accommodations for homeless people to get out of the cold.
The Warmland House shelter on Lewis Street opened up its extreme-weather shelter facility earlier this week.
The extreme-weather shelter provides Warmland with 15 additional beds when weather conditions are deemed severe enough to present a substantial threat to the life or health of homeless people.
According to Warmland’s agreement with BC Housing to run the extreme-emergency shelter, the shelter opens up at the beginning of November and operates on and off when the weather dictates for the duration of the winter.
Warmland’s executive director James Tousignant said that, along with the 30 beds in its regular shelter, Warmland has recently been operating at or close to capacity with up to 45 people staying there during the cold nights.
“We’re finding that our regular shelter is usually full at this time of year, and the frequency with which we have had to activate our emergency-weather shelter is about the same as last year so far this winter,” he said.
The Warmland Shelter, operated by the Cowichan Valley branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, is designed to be a gateway to stable housing and support services for men and women who are also coping with a variety of challenges, such as mental illness, addiction and chronic health conditions.
Tousignant said the opening of the new winter-weather shelter for women, the only other emergency shelter operating in the area, in December has taken some of the pressure off Warmland.
The 15-bed winter-weather shelter for women, located on University Way, is operated by the Cowichan Women Against Violence Society.
“It’s nice to have a shelter for women opened up and operating all winter long,” Tousignant said.
“These are challenging times in the Cowichan Valley, so it’s good to have those extra beds.”
Debbie Berg, executive director of the Cowichan Women Against Violence Society, said the winter-weather shelter for women averaged four woman a night at the beginning of January, but that jumped to an average of 10 a night at the end of January as winter weather set into the region.
She said that on one of the colder nights in January, the shelter was filled to capacity and had to turn away five women.
“We encouraged them to try Warmland and if they weren’t comfortable there or there were no spaces, we gave them warm clothing to help them get through the cold night,” Berg said.
“We have an interesting mix of women who use the shelter and we’re getting a good response from them about this project. Many want to see the shelter continue past the winter months and we’re seeing if that’s possible.”
Berg said another challenge facing the society is that some of the women staying at the shelter want to get on with their lives, like going back to school, work or volunteering, but many have experienced trauma in their lives and that is proving to be a barrier.
“We offer counselling and employment programs at our society’s headquarters, but they are not covered under the funding we receive for the shelter,” she said.
“We do receive some grant money to offer these programs, but we rely a lot on donations so we’re encouraging people to help us with the funding to help us offer these programs as our waiting lists for them continue to get longer.”