Cold snap highlights need for warm-up spots open to homeless people

Winnipeg’s shelters are working to provide spaces for people who don’t have a place to go, but the pandemic is posing some issues for those who normally rely on public places to find warmth.

Sean Neepin has been living on the streets for several years and is currently sleeping in a tent. On Wednesday, temperatures hovered around -20 C.

“You gotta keep the blood going. My shoes are frozen, but you know, I manage to put a couple socks on to keep warm,” he said.

“I’m always on the go, trying to do something to keep myself busy.”

Lately he’s been staying busy trying to find places to stay warm because coffee shops, libraries, skywalks and other public places are closed to the public. 

Sean Neepin says it’s difficult find a place to warm up on cold days because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

“It’s like a roller coaster. Sometimes it’s open, sometimes it’s just back and forth. It’s just how you accept it, I guess.”

Shelters like Main Street Project and the Salvation Army’s Centre of Hope have had to make changes to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to accommodate the growing needs of those who need shelter around the clock.

Since March, Main Street Project has had to shift and expand its daytime programming, says director of development Anastasia Ziprick.

“Once [a lot of public places] closed, everybody saw their numbers go up in the daytime programming. So that was a concern for keeping warm and for finding a washroom, finding a place to wash your hands,” she said.

In order to meet those needs, as well as space everyone out, she says Main Street Project opened a temporary shelter space and fast-tracked construction in the new space at 637 Main St., which opened earlier this month.

The new shelter in the old Mitchell Fabrics building offers 36,000 square feet of shelter space — 17 times bigger than the old space on Martha Street.

The new shelter can sleep up to 120 people with COVID-19 distancing requirements in place, and will be able to expand that number after the pandemic. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Shelters in the city are expecting more people to come by for a warm place to sleep as the winter drags on. But because the homeless and transient population often have other health issues, they’re at risk of COVID-19.

The organization says the Main Street shelter will be able sleep 120 people with required physical distancing measurements in place, and even more once the pandemic ends.

Meanwhile, the Centre of Hope installed dividers between beds a couple of months ago, and has been able to maintain capacity of 44 people in its shelter, says Maj. Gordon Taylor, the executive director.

He says the network of groups that provide social services are trying to work together to meet those needs, finding creative solutions to an unprecedented situation.

Neepin says the charities are all part of his survival. 

“It’s like an adventure like a game trying to stay alive, where to eat, find clothes, where to shower.”

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