People sheltering outside at risk as temperatures dip in capital region

Outreach workers will be checking on homeless campers and agencies are distributing warm winter coats, hot drinks and even fire extinguishers as temperatures drop and brisk winds bring bone-chilling conditions to the capital region.

An Arctic air system is pressing into the south coast this week with snow flurries forecast Wednesday and overnight temperatures reaching -7 C in Greater Victoria. Environment Canada said coastal areas will be five to 10 degrees below seasonal.

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At a warming tent set up on the edge of Beacon Hill Park along Cook Street, people have been picking up winter coats, mittens and hats as the mercury dips.

Near Royal Athletic Park, Peers Victoria Resource Society is extending the hours of its warming tent, which provides medical attention, hot drinks, food and soup, and warm clothing, along with fire extinguishers, as the risk for tent fires increases as the temperature drops.

“People are cold and they do use candles and heating sources … they need to,” said Rachel Phillips, Peers’s executive director. “It’s miserable for them. It’s unfathomable that people are surviving [in tents and outside] not just for a weeks, but for months and months at a time.

“People need to do what they need to do to keep warm and survive.”

Advocates estimate there are about 100 people sheltering in Beacon Hill Park, with another 40 in tents in the North Park neighbourhood beside Royal Athletic Park and several others in encampments scattered around the region.

A city official said bylaw officers are making regular checks and talking with people at sites around the city.

An extreme weather response program that had been in place for years in no longer in play as shelter space is all in use and the province acquired hotels to house some of the homeless population.

But Lori Angelini, director of philanthropy and community engagement with Cool Aid, said the society is opening up an additional 15 mats at its Rock Bay landing facility this week to help get more people out of the cold. She said anyone needing shelter should visit the shelter or call to get on the list.

The extra space will be open until at least Friday, and people will also be provided with a breakfast and bagged lunch.

Wendy Stone of the Victoria Cool Aid Society said the public has donated hundreds of coats for men and women, and distribution through various outreach teams starts this week.

“Our first target will be getting coats to those who are camping outside and some in doorways,” Stone said Monday, adding those people living in shelters and hotels will also have access to warmer coats.

“We get a little bit of everything when it comes to weather in Victoria — wind, rain and cold temperatures,” she said. “And for those living outside it’s not only imperative … it’s a matter of survival.”

Extreme cold is gripping most of Western Canada and parts of the territories and northern Ontario.

A woman in Dawson Creek died of exposure early Sunday while she was walking.

RCMP said the woman left a neighbour’s house around 1 a.m. but collapsed before arriving at her home.

According to Environment Canada, temperatures in Dawson Creek dropped to -42.2 C Sunday, with the wind chill making it feel close to -45.

dkloster@timescolonist.com

— With a file from The Canadian Press

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