Options Community Services made a potentially life-saving decision Wednesday evening, forgoing one of its COVID-19 protocols to ensure that people in need were given shelter as temperatures on the Semiahmoo Peninsula dropped well below freezing.
Earlier in the week, senior program manager Bruce Strom told Peace Arch News that Peace Portal Alliance Church shelter is operating at a reduced capacity of 20 people to accommodate COVID-19 distancing concerns. Once capacity is reached, staff typically provide services, such as food and bus tickets, before turning clients away. Staff also try to find other shelters in the city with available beds.
Last night, 33 homeless people showed up to Peace Portal Alliance Church. However, rather than cap admittance at 20, the shelter allowed everyone to stay the night.
“Last night was just utterly life-threatening temperatures and we could not turn people away in good conscience,” Strom said, adding that not everyone who showed up was provided with a sleeping mat, but they were kept warm and dry.
Last night, temperatures in the area dropped to –5 C. This morning, Environment Canada issued an “arctic outflow warning” noting that wind-chill values will range from –10 C to –20 C.
Earlier in the week, Strom talked to PAN about striking a balance between COVID-19 concerns and the immediate risk of people dying outdoors in extreme weather.
“The last thing we want is to, by our decisions, jeopardize someone’s life,” he said, adding that Options will continue to provide accommodation to everyone who shows up to its shelters while temperatures are “drastic.”
Noting that the buses stop running at midnight, Strom said one of the challenges shelters are facing is lack of transportation.
“We typically have beds available at our Cloverdale site,” he said, adding that the shelter was under-capacity Wednesday night.
“It’s definitely an anomaly. You never know what’s going to happen from night to night. But typically, when we’ve got the extreme weather like this cold snap… the numbers go up. So I have no idea what happened to our numbers last night.”
Options operates shelters in the Ladner United Church and the Pacific Community Church in Cloverdale. The Ladner location exceeded capacity last night, but like Peace Portal, everyone who showed up was allowed to stay.
Another challenge for homeless people, Strom added, is that the City of Surrey doesn’t have any daytime warming centres.
“We give people food, we give people a chance to use the washrooms and organize before they head out the door at seven in the morning, but that’s when we have to close up shop.”