Halifax homeless shelters are filling up as the cold temperatures hit, but this doesn’t mean everyone is going inside.
“The greatest misconception is that numbers are higher in cold weather,” said Linda Wilson, executive director of Shelter Nova Scotia.
But the weather really has nothing to do with it.
“Numbers are actually highest in the summertime because people are travelling from other parts of the country, or other parts of the province, hoping to get a job here.”
The demand may be less this Christmas season, but the shelters are still near capacity. Shelter Nova Scotia runs six facilities, two of which are shelters for men and women.
Barry House, an emergency shelter for women and their dependent children, has 20 beds. On Sunday night, 18 of those beds were being used.
On that same night, Metro Turning Point — a shelter for men, including veterans — had 76 of the 80 beds filled.
Even if there are beds available at one of these shelters, there are many who forgo the bed and stay in the cold.
Wilson says it’s never anyone’s choice to stay outside. But there are many who suffer from mental illness who may think it’s a better idea.
“Homeless shelters are not luxurious places,” she said. She uses Metro Turning Point — the largest shelter in Atlantic Canada — as an example.
There are two large rooms that have a total of 80 beds.
“It’s very crowded. I can only imagine what it’s like to sleep in there,” she said.
And when the winter hits and the shelters are at capacity, the environment can be tense. That’s 80 people who are all traumatized and in crisis.
“So if they choose to go outside, it’s to get a break from it,” she said.
The Out of the Cold shelter is a good alternative for those who find the shelters too crowded in the winter, she said.
Lesley Mulcahy, a volunteer with the Out of the Cold organizing committee, says the shelter pens itself as a “last resort.”
It works with the guest, and partner organizations like Shelter Nova Scotia, to see if there are other beds available to them.
“We provide beds to people who can’t access shelter somewhere else,” Mulcahy explained on Monday.
The shelter, located in St. Matthew’s Church on Barrington Street, is open daily from 8:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. the next day.
The shelter is primarily run by a team of 120 to 150 volunteers and five paid staff that operate from December to April every year.
They have up to 15 beds and recently, most of those beds have been filled.
“Even before we opened on Dec. 1, we knew that most shelters were almost at capacity, or at capacity,” she said.
“Given that capacity is a big factor for how many guests we might have, we knew that we were likely going to be busy.”
The shelter also welcomes drop-ins, those who are in need of a hot meal or a safe space to hang out. Mulcahy says they get about 20 to 30 drop-ins a night.
They also run community programming and set up events like art nights, bring in therapy dogs and host speakers like Dalhousie Legal Aid.
She defines the shelter as “low barrier,” meaning they are a co-ed, pet friendly, trans-inclusive space. Its doors are also open to those who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
“Safety and security is a big challenge for some of our guests
. . . because they may have had a poor experience somewhere else,” she said.
“So feeling very safe in a space is really important to folks and for some people, they may choose not to come into an environment where there are a lot of other people.”
If there is someone who says they would rather stay on the streets, Mulcahy says they will do their best to figure out why that is and connect them with the necessary supports.
For those looking to lend a helping hand, Out of the Cold is looking for morning and overnight volunteers. They are also looking for donations that could range from bus tickets to winter jackets and toiletries.
Original Publish Date: Dec. 20, 2016