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Montreal shelters prepare as extreme cold warnings hit Eastern Canada, Maritimes

‘Vigorous’ cold front will stay into Saturday, wind chill of around -40 C puts people at risk.
A person jogs next to a backdrop of the Montreal skyline as ice fog rises off the St. Lawerence River in Montreal, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Environment Canada has issued an extreme cold warning for the region. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

An extreme cold snap that is forecast to bring a risk of frostbite and hypothermia with temperatures of -27 C Friday night has shelters in the Montreal area fearing for the vulnerable homeless population.

Environment Canada says the effects of the “vigorous” cold front that will continue into Saturday with a wind chill of around -40 C will put people at risk.

The City of Montreal this week opened two temporary emergency warming centres for the homeless population, each of which can accommodate up to 50 people between 8 p.m. and 9 a.m. The centres are to close on Sunday.

City health officials warned that frostbite can cause permanent tissue damage necessitating amputation of fingers and toes, while hypothermia can cause death.

Marie-Noëlle L’Espérance, the director of prevention and intervention at Dans La Rue youth shelter in Montreal, said her shelter tries to accommodate as many people as possible in times of extreme weather.

To encourage the homeless population to seek refuge, Dans La Rue social workers will be out in the streets telling them about the dangers of extreme cold. The city has also said police, paramedics and social workers will be encouraging people without homes to go to shelters.

Serge Lareault, Montreal’s commissioner for the homeless population, said there are more than 1,600 beds in Montreal shelters, but L’Espérance fears that won’t be enough to meet the need.

“Those spaces are already occupied,” she said. “The 100 spaces that they just added are welcomed, but we are lacking spaces.”

Quebec is not alone in feeling the effect of the bitter cold. Ontario is expecting a wind chill of -30 C. Environment Canada has also issued extreme cold warnings for all of New Brunswick, where the wind will make it feel as cold as -50 C across a wide swath of the northern counties starting Friday afternoon and into Saturday.

Bitterly cold temperatures are also in the forecast for Nova Scotia and P.E.I., where the wind will make it feel as cold as -40 C.

Nova Scotia Community Services Minister Karla MacFarlane promised Thursday that anyone in need of shelter will be provided with a bed, even if the government needs to rent hotel rooms.

In Montreal, the Welcome Hall Mission shelter is open 24 hours and has a capacity of 165 people, but CEO Sam Watts said they have a policy of not turning away anyone in need.

“When it’s really cold we have to be extra vigilant that we’re working very closely with the entire ecosystem to make sure that nobody has to stay outside.”

He said the extreme cold is particularly hard on people living on the streets, who often have health conditions that make them vulnerable.

“We take people in, and we encourage people to stay in,” he said. “At the same time, we become extra aware of the medical conditions that people have.

“Because as I think you’re aware, anybody with a number of comorbidities in addition to experiencing homelessness is extra vulnerable to extended periods of time outside. So that’s a concern for us, and it just means that we work extra hard in times like this.”

—Marisela Amador, The Canadian Press

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