Shelters in Abbotsford took in 250 people on Monday night, as a winter storm brought more than 20 cm of snow and temperatures dipped to nearly -20 C. There is no warming shelter during the day in Abbotsford, and the storm is expected to last until Friday. Pictured is the 5 and 2 Ministries shelter for older adults in Abbotsford on Dec. 20. (Submitted/Jesse Wegenast)

Shelters in Abbotsford took in 250 people on Monday night, as a winter storm brought more than 20 cm of snow and temperatures dipped to nearly -20 C. There is no warming shelter during the day in Abbotsford, and the storm is expected to last until Friday. Pictured is the 5 and 2 Ministries shelter for older adults in Abbotsford on Dec. 20. (Submitted/Jesse Wegenast)

‘A sea of mats’: Abbotsford extreme weather shelters run overcapacity through winter storm

Extreme weather response coordinator calling on EMBC and city to open daytime warming spaces

The dining room at one of Abbotsford’s extreme weather shelters is a ‘sea of mats,’ as temperatures plummeted to nearly -20 C.

Jesse Wegenast, the extreme weather response co-ordinator, said the various shelters around the city housed 250 of the estimated 700 who live unhoused Monday night. At one shelter, that meant running at 200 per cent capacity, and at another, Tuesday night was expected to be nearly 70 overcapacity.

“We are trying to lay mats on the floor and making sure we people out of this horrendous weather,” he said. And for all of those people, getting of this weather is a matter of life or death.

“You can only imagine if you’ve spent any time living outside your health is already very compromised,” he said. “You could be dealing with some kind of chronic disability or whatever it may be. And then the temperatures are dipping into the -18 C range.”

He was just with a friend the other day who lost a leg due to being unhoused, and they were talking about people who have died in cold weather. Most everyone who works or volunteers in a social services setting knows someone who has lost their life to the weather, Wegenast said.

“It’s pretty devastating,” he added.

And while they do what they can through the nights, there is still no daytime warming shelter in Abbotsford. Wegenast and others are hoping that municipalities and/or Emergency Management of B.C. will find a way to open buildings for those who need a place to warm up throughout the day.

“We need some help,” he said. “We need them stepping up.”

While estimates of unhoused people in Abbotsford vary, Wegenast says that 700 is likely a good estimate. But not all of them will seek shelter at night. Some will sleep in cars, others will trade sex for shelter, he said.

When the weather improves, they will end the extreme weather shelter availability until it’s needed again.

“It’s completely unsustainable,” he said. “Our dining room is a sea of mats.”

It’s also taxing on their available staff and volunteers, who often push through and go above and beyond to ensure people are housed, warm and fed.

There are ways people can help. He suggests keeping a bag of new socks, hand warmers and gloves in your backseat, and offering them to people you see in the street. For those who like to bake, they could offer up individually packaged treats to shelters. He said many people on the streets are feeling extremely lonely through the holidays, and may try to disconnect even more than usual, putting them at greater risk.

Even a connection with a conversation can help, he offered.

Gateway Church has a steady supply of volunteers offering meals, Wegenast said, and there are others doing good work, like the Drug War Survivors. Wegenast can help connect those who would like to volunteer time or resources to where it’s needed, through his email address: jessewegenast@mccbc.ca.

READ MORE: Here’s how Abbotsford prioritizes roads for snow-clearing


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