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‘It’s devastating’: Homeless Canadians at risk as Eastern Canada endures extreme cold, advocates say

With a cold snap sending much of Eastern Canada indoors, advocates at homeless shelters are working tirelessly to get unhoused people indoors as temperatures drop dangerously low.

“It’s actually been very scary and stressful leading up to what we saw was being forecast in the province,” Sheri Lecker, executive director at Halifax’s Adsum women and children’s centre, told CTV News Channel.

In Halifax, temperatures dropped to -25 C on Friday, breaking a 52-year-old record when the city reported -24.4 C in 1971. Additionally, Brier Island, Kentville, Port Hawkesbury and Yarmouth all broke their own regional cold weather records in the province.

Lecker said community groups have set up shelters for unhoused people in hotel rooms and pop-up shelters as many housing shelters are already packed. However, she says because Nova Scotians may not be used to these frigid temperatures, many people might not realize how dangerous the cold can be and still choose to stay outside in fear of losing their set up outdoors.

“People don’t want to give up this space that they’ve created outside to come inside for one or two nights in a hotel and then maybe go back to their tent and find out that it’s collapsed or it’s been stolen,” she said.

In Toronto, wind chill temperatures neared -30 C as Environment Canada had set an extreme cold weather alert for most of the province on February, 3. Despite the cold, Steve Doherty, executive director at Youth Without Shelter, says volunteers have to turn away people because their shelter still adheres to COVID-19 restrictions and becomes full quickly.

‘It’s devastating, it’s very difficult for my staff every single day to turn people away,” Steve Doherty told CTV News.

Advocates have been calling for the city to invest in more accessible, 24/7 warming centres amid the death of a person experiencing homelessness who froze to death on Christmas Day. Extreme cold is known to cause frostbite and hypothermia, according to Environment Canada brisk temperatures can not only be deadly but also cause cold-related symptoms like shortness of breath, chest pain, muscle pain and weakness.

Shelters in Montreal, are also struggling with demand as the city increased service hours and opened up emergency warming centres as the city endured -28 C temperatures on Friday.

Lecker says while she would normally advise not to bother people who are experiencing homelessness, if it’s extremely cold out it’s okay to ask if they need help or someone that can direct them to somewhere warm.

“If it’s super cold, ask them if they’re okay or need anything and if they do, make all the calls you need to connect them to what they’re looking for,” she said.

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