Frigid temperatures leave homeless people in southwestern Manitoba fighting to survive

With Brandon’s only overnight shelter at capacity, people without homes are stocking up on tarps, tents and blankets or desperately searching for a couch as they seek somewhere warm to spend the night.

Bell Jennette and Marcia Chaske were ready for the cold snap in Brandon because they have no choice, they said. 

“You have to do what you have to do” to stay warm, Chaske said.

“I don’t care. I gotta survive. I gotta keep warm,” Jennette said. “Everybody needs help. They need a safe place.”

The duo will stay at the Samaritan House Ministries Safe and Warm Shelter, but always have a plan in case beds are not available. They are ready to make their own shelter using tarps, blankets, cardboard and other items.

“It’s freezing, but usually I’m walking around to keep warm. It’s my fingertips and toes that are very cold,” Chaske said.

A brick building with the sign "Samaritan House Ministries."
Samaritan House Ministries Safe and Warm Shelter has a bed capacity of 41 and created the temporary warming shelter the Q to offer a warm space for overflow when capacity is reached. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Safe and Warm has had 1,220 different visitors use its services since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — a significant number in a city of just over 51,000.

As of Nov. 10, 2022, the shelter had seen 444 unique visitors this year.

Safe and Warm has a maximum capacity of 41 beds. The temporary overnight warming shelter the Q was added to Safe and Warm in December to accommodate overflow if beds become full, but there are no beds in the overflow area.

The temperature in Brandon dropped to –31 C on Thursday night, as southern Manitoba dealt with the tail end of a bitter cold snap with extreme temperature warnings.

Jennette worries most about younger people and older folk when the temperature drops, because they don’t always know how to stay warm or the resources that are available.

During the day, people can go to the Blue Door Project, Brandon Friendship Centre and Seventh Street Health Access Centre to stay warm. At night, some will hunker down in the indoor entrance of a bank downtown — at times there can be around 15 people huddled together in the small area.

There are other things to think about while living on the street, Jennette said, and surviving only becomes harder in the winter.

She is always thinking about finding and keeping water and food so she doesn’t feel like she is starving. She appreciates the Blue Door, a daytime warming shelter, because she can escape the freezing temperatures while getting some water and snacks.

The Blue Door has seen some of its busiest days of the winter this past week, staff member Cheryl Longclaws said. 

“We have a lot of individuals coming in to stay warm. We could have between 40 to 80 individuals,” Longclaws said. “People come in very cold.”

At its busiest, the Blue Door can be visited by almost 100 people seeking warmth, food and socialization.

The Blue Door gives them gloves, blankets, hand warmers, hot drinks and anything else they can to help people warm up, but it is challenging, because Blue Door largely relies on community donations, Longclaws said.

A man in a ball cap stares at the camera.
Clayton Graham worries people will get hurt or die as the temperatures drop in Brandon if they do not have access to a warm shelter at night. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

“This morning was –42.… I do think about the homeless and the people who have no place to go and how they manage to stay warm,” Longclaws said.

“Usually they help each other out. They huddle together.”

Clayton Graham stays at the Safe and Warm every night. He’s originally from Dauphin but has been living in Brandon for about a month after being released from the Brandon Correctional Centre.

It was hard at first to find these places, he said, and it gets more difficult in the cold. On cold days, Graham bounces between different places, including the Helping Hands Centre soup kitchen, Seventh Street Access and the Blue Door.

He wishes people knew how hard life is on the street, especially when it is cold.

He recently met someone whose hand had been badly burned by frostbite. He worries that others will get hurt in the frigid temperatures — especially because of other issues that make people more likely to experience harm.

“There’s a lot of addiction. There’s a lot of abuse and stuff. Like, people are dealing with all sorts of issues.… Alcohol plays a big factor in like, you know, freezing to death,” he said. 

“It thins your blood, makes it harder to stay warm. Plus it numbs you to the cold.”

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