While Port Alberni hasn't been stricken with the extreme cold seen in other parts of Canada this winter, freezing expected this week has led the shelter to offer more overnight beds.
On Friday, Wes Hewitt, executive director of the Port Alberni Shelter Society, declared an Extreme Weather Alert until temperatures become milder. Overnight conditions reached freezing levels on the weekend, temperatures that Environment Canada forecasted to continue on Monday and Tuesday night. After some slightly warmer, wet days, overnight lows are expected to reach -1 C Friday and -2 C Saturday.
The Port Alberni Shelter is normally funded by B.C. Housing for 12 emergency beds, but the Extreme Weather Alert increases this capacity by 15 additional spaces.
Over the weekend, the shelter saw five clients use the extra beds, additional space that has been found in the facility's transitional and supportive housing areas. Along with a place to sleep, clients receive meals at the local facility.
"What we do is we shuffle things around," said Hewitt. "We have extra bed space, and we also have cots, so we actually have the capacity to take some of them into extra beds. So right now we don't have any mats on the floor or any cots."
The weather alert allows the shelter to receive clients around the clock; normally intake hours are from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. The alert puts the Assistance to Shelter Act into effect, placing more responsibility on police to ensure anyone on the streets is not at risk.
RCMP officers are required to ensure anyone outside overnight is aware that shelter is available.
"They come across somebody, they have to offer them assistance," Hewitt said. "If you're walking down the street and it's cold out, and you look like you're maybe not housed or from the area, they have to stop and talk to you, find out what your situation is."
This is the third time an Extreme Weather Alert has been called in Port Alberni this winter. The shelter expanded its services from Nov. 27 to Dec. 5, Dec. 9 to 12 and on Christmas Eve for a period of two weeks.
When an alert is not in place, Hewitt said the shelter's 12 emergency beds are usually filled, space limitations that force staff to frequently turn homeless people away.
"We probably turn away more than half the time," he said, adding that the problem comes down to how much funding the shelter receives. "A lot of these people that are coming to the emergency shelter, with proper supports in place, they could be housed in the community."
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